A few years back I went to Texas to visit my cousin. As we were driving from San Antonio to Corpus Christi he shared with me some sobering songs written by Vietnam Veterans. Among them was a song titled, “It Don’t Mean Nothin’”.
As I sat quietly, listening with my heart to the songs of Vietnam, I began to hurt. Tears welled up in my eyes and I tried my hardest not so sob. Soon a headache followed that lasted the rest of the day.
As you may have surmised, my cousin is a Vietnam Vet. He was always a quiet child growing up. One that loved his family deeply and could always be seen whenever there was a gathering; but rarely heard. I was 15 when he was drafted at the age of 20, and I remember being filled with a sense of dread. Not because I understood the horrors of war, but because the older family members, who had served in WWII did. They feared what he would face and worst of all, that we may never see him alive again.
He and I were never very close as youngsters; because he was so quiet, and I was so…well…the opposite. I was too busy to take the time to become close. However, our family has a powerful love, and he was always there basking in its warmth, if even on the sidelines.
As we rode together I could see that he carried internal wounds that he never expresses, or at least does not express to me. I felt honored when he shared the songs with me, because in a subtle way he was sharing a piece of himself. He doesn’t talk much about what happened in Vietnam. The pain of heart I felt that day wasn’t mine, because I wasn’t there; he was.
While flying back home from the Lone Star State, I thought deeply about his dark hazel eyes that didn’t smile when the rest of his face does. Lying back in my seat I focused on his eyes. In my mind’s eye I traveled past them into a vast ocean, the black waters were still and lifeless. No birds singing, no sound of an ocean breeze. Yet I sensed that somewhere in that vast darkness, there was a young man adrift, alone and frightened. Wanting desperately to be found and brought back to a safe world of love, peace and laughter. A place where hatred doesn’t exist; where children aren’t killed to further a cause; where families don’t suffer the loss of a loved one, and a place where your best friend isn’t maimed and disfigured before he has a chance to succeed in life.
As humans, we are capable of turning off our feelings so we won’t feel the pain. It is a survival mechanism. Our method of coping becomes one of non-participation. But when we numb ourselves to pain, we numb ourselves to pleasure as well. We cannot suppress negative emotions without suppressing the positive along with it.
In the face of trauma we can shut our emotions down. Feelings are not felt, but suppressed, so that we can survive the event. Hence the song based on the common phrase used in Vietnam: “It don’t mean nothin’.” They had to keep telling themselves that the experience didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything; in order to not feel the gut wrenching pain they would feel if it did matter.
We can shove our emotions surrounding the trauma out of our conscious awareness; but the negative feelings are still there. They heavily influence our behavior. We can push down our feelings in an attempt to make them go away; pretend that they are not there at all, or that they are relatively unimportant. But eventually the stuffed negative memories and emotions will surface. They will come back with a vengeance to force us to deal with them. At the very least they will, in some way, affect our happiness.
So, I dedicate this article to all Vets out there that have faced the worst in war. You have my compassion for being placed in a situation you would never choose for yourself or your children. Man was not designed to face the horrors of war, child abuse, violence and death. Lives are changed and one can never go back and right any wrongs that have been committed by us or against us.
We can’t change the past, but we can change our future. We can stop the effect the experiences have on our lives today. We can let it go to the point where it only remains a memory as we finally put the pain to rest. The charge of emotion we had around the event can be dissipated forever. In order to heal we have to admit that it did mean something. It did have a dramatic impact on our lives. That’s when we grow and become a better person because of our experiences. It is then that we can bring happiness and contentment back into our lives.
Over twenty years have past since I originally wrote the above article for a small town newspaper. My cousin has faced other heartaches since his days at war, but we can always count on him to show up when the family gathers. I still like to watch his eyes and now...every once in a while...I see them smile.
Dedicated with Love to my cousin David W.
Photo Credit - Curtesy of David W.