Sunday, 18 May 2014

I don’t know what I don’t know. 18.05.14

I’ve spent the last month, it seems, realising that I’m a bit of a moron.

It started with a chance meeting in a pub, a lady recently returned from her third tour of Afghanistan, a tragic incident that had just unfolded, a phone call she got just as we were sitting there.  She turned around and told me the broad details of what had just happened, and I found myself staring like an idiot with my mouth wide open, scrabbling around my brain for anything to put a handle on it, to tell me how to react/respond to it << sympathy, empathy, tragedy, common background, do I understand this?  What do I do, what do I say, what is the correct response?  Is there anything out here?>>  I came up with NOTHING.  Not a thing.  I realised that I just didn’t have the tools to unpack, process and respond to the situation.  My experiences hadn’t encompassed anything like it.  I couldn’t empathise.  I couldn’t relate.  I could, however, shut the fuck up and listen while she needed/wanted to talk, toast her fallen comrades (fuck politics), and then shut the fuck up and listen some more, because this shit is serious, it is real, and it is part of her life.  Any fantasy of mine concocted out of extrapolation and Hollywood would be bullshit.

It made me realise how blissfully narrow my experiences are.  I have had a veritable fuckton of experience dealing with a certain type of predator in a certain setting.  I have seen some shit go down – not nearly as much as some but more than many.  However, comparing this to the experiences of someone who has been in a war zone, has lived through a bombing or survived a mass genocide would be ludicrous.  Everything about it is too different.  It would be like comparing going down a playground slide with a parachute jump.  I can’t extrapolate what those survivors feel, think and believe based on my data – I would come up with crap.

A couple of days later I read an interview with a General Mattis, who reckons we have PTSD all wrong[1]:

"You've been told that you're broken," said Mattis, "That you're damaged goods" and should be labeled victims of two unjust and poorly executed wars. The truth, instead, is that we are the only folks with the skills, determination, and values to ensure American dominance in this chaotic world.

To a now-silent theater full of combat vets he explained how the nation has a "disease orientation" toward combat stress. Mad Dog's death blow was swift:  "In America, victimhood is exalted."

(…) The alternative is something so obvious that it is pathetic we don't talk about it more. "There is also Post-Traumatic Growth," Mattis told the crowd. "You come back from war stronger and more sure of who you are."

I found the article very interesting, largely because it resonates with my (low) opinion of how, as a culture, we enshrine our traumas and damages, building fetters that keep us from getting over whatever happened, learning from it and moving on.  Then I thought: what the hell do I know about this?  How the hell can I have an opinion about post-combat PTSD?  I don’t know anything about combat – watching “Hamburger Hill” twice doesn’t really count.  Yeah, I get mightily triggered by certain things[2], but my experiences just don’t match.  What I think of as PTSD is on such a different scale as to be a different animal.  I’m talking out of my ass here.

Then I wondered: how many PTSD experts are ex-military? 

Then I wanted to headbutt the wall.

We do this all the bloody time, it seems.  We are so attached to the scientific process that we prefer “official” knowledge, gained from “reputable” books or courses, over anything learnt through experience.  “The plural of anecdote is not data”, you know, and if you try to question any dogma based on your personal experience you’re going to be told that ad nauseam.  Essentially, if you have learnt it solely through experience, you’ve not really learnt it at all.  Where is the research that supports your information?  Where is the peer reviewed paper?  Does it fit what the opinion of the “experts” - who may have never seen or lived through the issue, but are expert because we all say they are?

That works well, up until the point we decide that we know everything there is to know about tigers because we’ve spent a lifetime studying domestic cats.


[2] If you must know, the Firefly episode “Objects in space”.  When Jubal is talking to Kaylee.  The first time I watched I wasn't sure whether I was going to pee myself of throw up.  Happily I did neither.

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