In our technologically advanced and interconnected world we are constantly bombarded with an endless stream of information, much of which is flat out wrong at worst and a partial truth at best. Often, sifting through the multitude of information on a truth-seeking journey can feel like a full-time job, and few people have time for a quest of such magnitude. And though we may not have the time to fully educate ourselves on every topic known to man, that doesn’t mean we don’t get to have opinions, generate theories or make judgments based on our experiences and knowledge. However, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that once formed, these opinions, theories and judgments don’t need refinement.
Although we are all free to have opinions and to voice them publicly, the impact our words have when released is not equal. It’s a simple concept to understand: a person or group who has more influence (i.e. their opinion reaches more people) should be conscious of the power they have and use it responsibly. We all know this moral standard is not adhered to and abuse of power in an attempt to propagate false information or damaging opinions is a regular occurrence in our society. Unfortunately, it isn’t just coming from the obvious politicians and pop culture celebrities. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, any person or group with a large following has a platform and a megaphone to advance an agenda amongst countless numbers of people.
If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that many people don’t seem amenable to refining their opinions, especially when it involves an intellectually challenging expansion of the mind. This renders those people quick to judge, accepting ideas that reinforce what they already believe, and either flat out rejectors of examples contrary to their beliefs or claimants to the idea that whatever it is must be an anomaly, an exception to the unyielding and possibly arbitrary rule they’ve adopted.
Have we forgotten the power behind doubt? What was the last difficult question you asked someone? What was the last difficult question you were willing to answer?
In becoming less adept at questioning, we’ve hindered our ability to form educated judgments through analysis and evaluation (read: critical thinking skills have gone to shit). Subsequent to the impairment of critical thinking is a deficit in our capacity for problem-solving. This is a huge problem, friends.
What good are we as a species endowed with higher-order cognitive functioning if we’re not putting our cerebral cortex to use, thus leaving us completely vulnerable to influence from all the wrong places? Do you want someone else to make up your mind for you?
As humans, we should question everything, but what is lost on many is that being skeptical doesn’t mean that we question in a way that serves only to advance our agenda. Nor should we question in order to make someone feel small in an effort to stroke our own ego or to simply be an asshole.
There really is an art to questioning. It’s an art that is ideally rooted in some shred of objectivity rather than emotional arousal and one which needs to be applied to the obvious, such as scientific information, just as much as it should be to ourselves and those around us. Casting doubt on ourselves and answering difficult questions (e.g. Why do we believe the way we do, act the way we do, see the world and others the way we do?) is no easy task. Objectivity towards oneself requires a deep dive underneath the layers of ego, which for most of us is a fortress, a safe haven among the chaos and mayhem of life.
Who doesn’t want to feel safe, though? This is why questioning ourselves and those around us is particularly challenging, as it all boils down to self-protection and preservation. But what can be protective can also be limiting. If we don’t skillfully question ourselves, if we’re not self-analytical, we don’t learn or grow. Non-growth is equivalent to stagnation, which, in biological terms, equals death. In a situation of non-growth, our ego will run the show, always trying to protect us by accepting experiences that fit our ideas of who we are and rejecting experiences that don’t. Pain will be pushed away, never dealt with but never gone. The highest highs will be subdued because some part of us is still tethered to something.
In not questioning our peers, we create an echo chamber, insulating ourselves from the sounds of the ever-changing outside world. This is already a pervasive problem in society for a number of groups of people. Recently, this echo chamber effect has been identified as problematic within the veteran community, which has been abuzz with discussion about what it means to be a veteran – more specifically, a GWOT veteran - and what the image of today’s veteran looks like and could or should look like. Questioning challenges the status quo and demands that people wake up and blaze new paths instead of propagating old and tired ideas while living down to stereotypes.
We can’t solely accept questioning from within our own communities, though. Understanding can never take the place of experience but I think it’s a mistake to completely disregard someone’s thoughts on something just because that person isn’t “one of us.” When a person doesn’t belong to a group, it’s easy for the members of that group to feel like he or she couldn’t possibly understand the suffering that individuals within that group have experienced and therefore he or she couldn’t know what it’s like to be “one of us,” rendering them of little value. This mentality is toxic to the fabric of our society.
There is no single group of humans that have a monopoly on suffering and while I do believe that some people have absolutely been dealt a shittier hand in life than others, we all suffer, and suffering is relative. Additionally, we’re all wired different, with some of us naturally better at dealing with suffering than others.
None of us have any idea what life is like for someone else, thus making assumptions based on the superficial ways in which we characterize people is a mistake because it strips them of their individuality and devalues individual experience. I’ve met people who reject the notion of universal suffering and often wondered if it stems from a lack of compassion for their fellow human. Or maybe it’s rooted in their predilection for self-aggression and intolerance for those who don’t follow suit. I guess it could also be related to limited worldly experiences or possibly even a sense of entitlement (or guilt, on the flipside). Maybe something else entirely.
Suffering is a fundamental part of humanity. Those of us who feverishly try to control every aspect of life in an attempt to avoid physical or emotional pain spend our existence dwelling in any moment other than the present, undoubtedly missing out on the depth and richness of life.
This way of living ultimately creates a sense of disconnection from ourselves and our experience, known as disembodiment. After we lose that connection, we inevitably lose connection with others and with the natural world. This disconnection makes it extremely difficult to be compassionate and extremely easy to be apathetic towards others. Examples of people treating each other like shit are sadly abundant on social media platforms, and I’d argue that the root of this lack of compassion comes down to disembodiment and disconnection. Besides walling off the places in our hearts capable of compassion, a state of disembodiment robs us of our ability to attend to the present moment and maintain a sense of open, nonjudgmental awareness. In attempting to control our internal and external environments and avoid physical and emotional pain, we actually create more suffering for ourselves.
It would seem then that the key to managing suffering is to remain open to it and accept it rather than push it away. Which is easier said than done.
If it were easy, everyone would be doing it already. Although there are many individuals who are willing to endure and accept suffering in the form of physical pain or stress, I’d be willing to bet that there are far more who aren’t. It seems like there are far fewer, still, who are willing to endure and accept suffering in the form of emotional pain or stress. And it’s no wonder. When or from where are we given the tools for managing suffering? When are we taught how to be resilient?
When it comes to physical pain, some people learn to reluctantly accept it due to lack of choice (e.g. during military training). On the other hand, some learn to willfully, and maybe even lovingly, accept it. There are a number of reasons why an individual – man or woman – might learn to willingly accept physical pain. One reason may stem from competition and the understanding that in order to be the best at a physical task one must endure physical pain, as gains are not made by operating within one’s comfort zone. Another reason may be due to the fact that physical toughness – achieved only through enduring physical pain – is romanticized and revered by our society. There are obviously others.
Success in managing suffering in the form of physical pain leads to a form of resilience, the very definition of which is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or toughness. Resilience will not be achieved by anyone unwilling to embrace discomfort. The much overused yet rarely lived saying, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” is actually the crux of what it means to be resilient. Discomfort is commonly pursued among the warrior culture, veteran or not. People wear their ability to compartmentalize discomfort like a badge of honor and use it as a measuring stick for themselves and others. Yet some of these same individuals, fist bumping out of mutual appreciation and tolerance of physical pain, refuse to even toe the shores of emotional discomfort. Bottle it up, light it on fire and throw that thing like a Molotov cocktail.
Unfortunately, we can’t set our emotional pain on fire to get rid of it. When we look within our culture for examples of emotional resilience and how to deal with emotional pain, we see a long history of positive reinforcement for those who are able to “keep a lid on it” and negative reinforcement for those who show any sign of emotion in a public way. We’ve been given an unspoken message and we’ve unconsciously integrated it into our being: it is not acceptable to fall apart, especially not in front of others.
This notion of keeping a lid on our suffering is to say that we don’t let it bubble up into our consciousness. Rather, we actively suppress and ignore it. Ignoring pain is a reasonable solution to a short-term problem. For example, ignoring physical pain can result in highly valuable short-term benefits like improved athletic performance or an enhanced ability to operate in life-threatening environments. Ignoring emotional pain similarly may provide short-term benefits such as being able to stay focused on an extremely important task when we’d rather go fetal and cry into a pillow or go on a rampage and hurt people. These are very helpful survival strategies that exist for a reason. However, never allowing ourselves to attend to pain and address the root causes of the pain – either physical or emotional – can cause long-term scarring. Thus, ignoring pain may be helpful in the short-term, but it doesn’t heal the wound. Rather, it forms scar tissue around the injury and stores it deep within our bodies to be dealt with at a later time.
This stuff that we bury and hope to never deal with again is what I refer to as “our shit.” This shit we carry around with us influences the way we live on every level. Bringing this full circle and going back to how we interact in society and communities when we refuse to question ourselves or let others question us, we are refusing to peel back the layers of our ego and dive into our shit. This is not helpful for us as individuals or for society as a whole.
Regardless of whether you’re a civilian or a veteran, it’s time to take personal responsibility for your life and the direction it continues to go. No one will fix your situation for you and you’ve got to stop pointing the finger everywhere but inward when trying to assign blame to problems or causes of dissatisfaction in your life. It’s time to unf*ck yourself and own your shit.
Owning your shit means figuring out what your truth is and walking that path. Don’t live your life according to what others think you should do, and make sure you’re not avoiding things because you’re afraid of failure or you’re afraid of the unfamiliar. Get the voices out of your head that told you you’re only capable of “xyz” and not good enough for “abc.” Annihilate stereotypes. And remember, choosing the comfortable road is not the right route to living your best life.
Tough love is a form of kindness and I’m a firm believer in treating everyone with kindness, so let’s all start cultivating some tough love for one another. Hold each other accountable and encourage one another to be better by being better ourselves. Question everything. Stop the judgment and show compassion. Let yourself fall apart. Put yourself back together as the person you want to be.
Dr. Katie Pate spends her 9-5 creating medical solutions for battlefield trauma and prolonged field care, and finding ways to improve the quality of life of our Veterans. She has a PhD in Physiology and background in Neuroscience, and has conducted research in a variety of medical fields. When not nerding it up, you can find her doing extreme sports in the mountains of Colorado, unless she’s training at the range and gym, or sitting on her meditation cushion at home with her dog. He meditates, too.