October 15, 2015

The War Inside: Veterans & Suicide.

Aubrey Arcangel/Flickr

A friend recently asked me what my name means. I confessed I didn’t know and so I looked it up. The name “Mark” means, “consecrated to the God Mars,” the God of War.

As a boy I would have been thrilled to know this, finding it completely appropriate and associating it with a kind of destiny I always felt was mine—to go to war.

Now having gone to Iraq and moved on with my life, I am still thrilled to have discovered the meaning of my name. I find it just as appropriate, not because of its association with war of an external kind, but because of the way I have come to view war. That is, war as something personal, internal and actually worth fighting—the struggle within one’s self to know who one really is.

This is war of a different kind, but it is one that I have found no less daunting and difficult. As the philosopher Thales said, “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”

What do I mean by internal war?

To fight an internal war means to struggle with all those things that prevent a person from getting to know who they really are and why: their likes and dislikes, and why; their character traits, especially the unflattering ones; the origin and source of their anger, love, hate, joy, jealousy, motivations and drives; why they choose to act the way they do in any situation. It means possessing the highest amount of self-honesty and self-awareness.

To know and practice such things means freedom in the truest sense of the word.

To fight an internal war means to struggle with all those feeling that are hard to embrace—feelings which nonetheless do one’s sense of self justice, though they may be associated with painful memories or unrealistic expectations. One’s ability to embrace and healthily express one’s feelings and emotions determines how alive and living one actually is. The failure to do this results not just in a deadened life where one feels alive only when getting crazy or getting messed up, but sometimes also in an actual death where suicide seems the only answer.

A couple months ago, another Marine from my former unit committed suicide. Suicide remains a huge problem for active duty personnel and veterans alike. Some estimates put suicide among veterans as high as 20 a day. During the final years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suicide was even the leading cause of death among active serving personnel.

Ironically, those who committed suicide had been able to walk through war zones, yet lacked the ability to openly speak about and deal with their problems.

It should give serious pause to know that a nation can train its citizens to run fearlessly into battle, and yet fail to make individuals capable of dealing with their inner pain.

Sadly, we fight external wars—wars that don’t really matter—in order to avoid the wars we are struggling with inside. This suggests that there is a dimension to being human that most of us chose not to deal with—a different kind of war we choose not to fight.

Not everyone will join the military and go to war, but almost everyone will find a way to avoid their inner struggles.

A distant uncle of mine recently committed suicide around the same time as the Marine from my Battalion. It seems individuals everywhere are vulnerable to seeing suicide as a way out of their troubles.

Although physical war may be the most convenient way for tricking oneself into believing he or she is stronger, more confident and more self-possessed than they really are, there are many ways to deceive oneself, and almost everyone will find their own.

Participating in physical war may have its merits, and may test various aspects of one’s self. Becoming successful from a monetary and social point of view may bring a sense of fulfillment, and constructing an identity around any theme—be it becoming a great actor, photographer, scientist, preacher, bodybuilder, etc.—may bring a certain degree of satisfaction.

However, if these things do nothing to avail us of our inner sufferings, if they fail to bring lasting peace and self knowledge, then they merely represent dead-end ways by which individuals seek to displace and avoid their inner struggles. As such, they prevent the attainment of a kind of interminable pleasure that can only come from embracing the full weight of existence and the freedom with which it comes.


Relephant Read:

Suzanne Manafort: Saving Our Veterans Through Mindful Yoga Therapy.


Author: Mark Zimmermann

Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Aubrey Arcangel/Flickr


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Neil Nov 8, 2015 4:17pm

Hey Mark. As one vet to another, I welcome you home. I found peace by helping other veterans. I teach them yoga – the kind that deals with not only the body and the breath but also the mind. Understanding one's mind and its thoughts are vital to becoming at peace with one's self and others. Thoughts can create emotions and emotions can cause reactions – the kind that can hurt. Together we learn how meditation and mindfulness allows us to live with any thought that may come up. Noticing thoughts as just thoughts, and nothing more, is a life saver.

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Mark Zimmermann

Mark Zimmermann‘s life has been a surprise. He has an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, which hangs next to a yoga teacher-training certificate, which hangs next to a Bachelors degree for philosophy. He has gone from having an irresistible urge to experience combat to becoming a pacifist with anarchist sympathies. He has travelled to 21 countries, and lived abroad for over two years collectively. He has jumped out of a plane, ran off a mountain and gone to war. He has walked along the Euphrates, stood inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, and climbed Mt. Sinai. He has swam in the blue hole of the Red Sea, walked into a Muslim wedding and wandered through the streets of Fez, Paris, Istanbul and many other cities. He has stood under open desert nights watching shooting stars; opened himself up to other cultures and reestablished contact with his inner child through looking in the eyes of his niece and nephew. He has contemplated the world, surrendered to love and tried to understand himself at all costs. He has had his heart broken and he has broken hearts. At times, he has felt the truth of existence, but lost it from trying to hold it too tight. He is 28 years old. He is currently traveling the world until he feels like going to grad school.