Sometimes we’re fighting wars that ended a long time ago, based on scripts that in some cases were written long before we were born…
What happens to a dream deferred?
During the height of the Japanese occupation of the Pacific during WW II, there were tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers scattered over literally thousands of tiny islands. As the tide of war shifted, many of these island strongholds were defeated or overrun, but some were entirely missed. On some islands, small groups of soldiers or isolated survivors hid in caves in dense inaccessible jungle areas. Eventually, the war would come to an end. But since these survivors had no way of knowing, they continued living as if the war was still being fought, maintaining military protocol, totally isolated, yearning for the day when they would be reunited with their command.
In the years immediately following the war, many of these soldiers were found by natives, or discovered when they shot at fishing boats. As the years passed, these discoveries became less frequent, the last having been found thirty years after the war had ended.
Try to put yourself in such a soldier’s position. His government had called on him to protect his country from an external threat, trained him, and sent him to a jungle island to protect his people. And as a loyal citizen he served this call and survived many battles through the hard years of war. When the war ended, he kept honoring this call, fighting a war that he didn’t know ended, surviving against great odds. Despite the heat, the insects, and the rains, he carried on, still loyal to the orders given to him by his government.
It would be easy to laugh at such a soldier and consider him stupid for continuing to fight a war that had been over for years. How should such a soldier be treated?
Whenever one of these soldiers was located, the first contact was always made by someone who had been a high-ranking officer. He would dust off his old uniform and samurai sword and take a military boat to the area where the soldier had been sighted. The officer would walk through the jungle, calling out for the soldier until he was found. When the soldier was found, the officer would thank the soldier, with tears in his eyes, for his loyalty, for continuing to defend his country. Only after some time would the soldier gently be told the war was over and that his country was again at peace, so he would not have to fight anymore. When he reached home, he would be given a hero’s welcome, with parades and medals, and crowds thanking him and celebrating his sacrifices.
Many of us would view these lost soldiers as weird and even crazy, fighting a war that had long been over. Yet who can deny their intention was positive – to protect and serve their country? Although they were doing the best they could with what they knew, and however useful their behavior may have once been, the war was over and it no longer served a purpose.
Laugh you might, but there are times we are all like those lost soldiers. We all have feelings or behaviors that once may have served a useful purpose at some time, and we continue even when they are no longer useful to us.
Some of us find ourselves still fighting battles with their parents long after they have died. We may find ourselves reacting in the workplace with behaviors developed to deal with an older brother, or the school bully. People who have been hurt sometimes learn to mistrust others so well that they have great difficulty trusting others who love them deeply. Some of us have been hurt so deeply that even saying the words, “I love you,” is a near impossibility.
All of us do things we sometimes consider stupid or limiting — things that get in our way. Sometimes we feel inadequate and angry when we think that’s a dumb thing to feel. How many of us also occasionally see our friends and relatives doing stupid, harmful, weird things. I think we tend to see it better in others than in ourselves. “Pfffft! They should know better,”we scoff.
We are the lost soldiers. Welcome to a war that has been over for a long time, my friends.
We usually respond to these behaviors by trying to get rid of them, criticizing ourselves mercilessly in the process:
“You ought to be able to stop smoking!”
“You should be able to lose weight!”
“You’re so stupid for not feeling more self-confident.”
“I get so pissed at getting these migraines!”
All we know is that these responses get in our way; that they serve no useful purpose, and only serve as obstacles.
However, like the lost soldiers, all our behaviors at one time served a useful purpose. Cognitive linguists talk about “frames,” the mental structures we build in order to make sense of reality. These frames are very important to us and sometimes they’re not even based on evidence but values. I can talk till I’m blue in the face, showing you that what you view as a table really isn’t a table, but if you developed a certain “frame” for a table, you will dismiss the evidence and keep the “frame.”
For me, the key to effective change is to use reframing techniques. Maybe we can think of a frame as part of a map. We create maps early in our lives so that we can navigate the territory. But what happens when the territory has changed and our maps have lost their relevance? What happens mostly is that people keep the maps and mistake the map for the territory.
I see it all the time.
The most important part of this reframing method is making the following assumption: that every behavior or feeling you have, no matter how bizarre or stupid it seems, has some useful and important, positive function or intention. It may seem ridiculous but it’s a powerful assumption that makes inner healing possible. It helps us turn problems and limitations into assets and allies.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…