A year and a half ago, it might be a lifetime, I got a lesson from Coyote, which I wrote about in Story-listening. At the time I thought I was balancing Story-telling (in which, not incidentally, I told about meeting Coyote to begin with) but, looking back, I see I took Coyote’s lesson to heart. Since that time I have chosen not just to listen to stories but to listen to those that are not easy to hear, that I wish I could put behind me or move on from or convince myself are no longer relevant. I have chosen to listen to stories about the Vietnam War.
I am listening partly because I came of age during that war. I watched it on television, saw the pictures in LIFE magazine, marched against it in demonstrations. But I am listening now for a new reason.
My friend Mark, a veteran, says that we all live “within a thin veneer of civilization and soldiers – on both sides – know what it is to drop beneath it.” What lies beneath the veneer is surreal, chaotic, mind-numbing, mesmerizing, sensual, desperate, extreme. Those who have experienced this have, in a real sense, descended to the underworld. In mythology, this journey would have been undertaken to rescue someone, to gain mystical knowledge, or to pit oneself against the ultimate opponent. Orpheus rescued Eurydice. Demeter returned with Persephone. Jesus harrowed Hell. Osiris, Gilgamesh, Inanna and many others sought knowledge, status, or immortality.
Veterans have made this journey and returned to tell the tale. No matter their level of awareness, their skill in storytelling, their sense of connectedness to the community they return to, each carries knowledge of the best and the worst of humanity. These are stories the community needs to hear and right now our culture is very confused about how to do that. Sentimentalizing veterans, staging spectacles at sporting events, providing – or not providing – support services all serve to distance the community from the story. Overcoming that distance, though, means more than passively listening to whatever story comes along. It means being willing to be engaged. It means learning to hear.
In order for any story, but especially a war story, to have meaning for the community, both the storytellers and the story-listeners must form a partnership. The storytellers are like foragers or explorers: what they find, they bring back. The story-listeners receive the tale and incorporate the new knowledge. Together they face the truth about war, both its horror and its allure, so that maybe, in the process, somehow, one fine day, war will diminish, not be chosen so quickly, not be waged to benefit the few, or out of a lack of imagination.
An engaged listener participates, allows the imagination to absorb the story, takes the story into one’s own life. The listener is free to assess the value of the story – is it being told out of weakness, to play to base emotions, to perpetuate fear or chaos? – but the listener’s first responsibility is to be there, to show up.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says,
Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding and peace they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can also teach us how to make peace with ourselves so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.
I suggest that this is not something veterans can or should do alone. Those of us who have not directly experienced the realities of war need to be able to hear the stories of those who have so that we may all make peace within ourselves. Really to hear a war story means to listen as if one’s life depended upon it. It means to listen so that the community, the generations yet to come, may live.