“Between the stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
Session four of Journey Forward: The M.M.A.P. for Success, Military Mindfulness Action Practices begins with this quote from Frankl’s brilliant book Man’s Search for Meaning published in 1959 that has “riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival.” (from the back cover of the 2006 Beacon Press printing). This program offered by Veteran’s Path provides a path away from the destructive behaviors that so often accompany the military lifestyle and that lead to an average of 22 veteran suicides a day. In addition to this program, I, like many others, am taking the 22-day push-up challenge modified in one important way: I am doing the Even Keel movement’s modification by noting three things I did the day before that I am proud of.
Before I get to the Even Keel movement, I want to introduce the holy trinity of destructive behaviors: stress, isolation, and temptation. In my last essay I wrote “the military does require a unique relationship with stress” and offered that the Veteran’s Path program provided a way to replace familiar tropes of temptation with more constructive behaviors “that enable continued success on a shared mission of defense of the country and the values we all cherish.” Call this an extension of the switch theory of crisis management where if we can open one switch, we can stop the worst possible outcome from occurring. The Even Keel movement acknowledges the significance of the principle of Veteran’s Path’s work and attempts to open the isolation switch.
Even Keel began over lunch in Singapore back in the summer of 2017. A friend of mine had discussed with me behaviors and a little personal background about a peer of hers. We identified some options but recognizing that some of his behaviors had crossed expected norms, she did not want him to get in trouble, she just wanted him to get some help. Given the limited tools we had available in that remote location, I decided to invite Adam to lunch, ask him a few leading questions and talk with him about changes I thought he needed to make to succeed. What happened has extended far beyond that in ways that have transformed both of our lives. I, for one, can say that I am still here today because of that lunch, because he had a friend and peer who was kind and empathetic enough to ask me to help him.
What happened was this: over the course of the hour he opened up to me about many of his personal struggles with relationships and trust. I listened. When his story had culminated he said something along the lines of “I bet that was more than you bargained for…” Probably true, but I responded with a simple request: every Saturday, I wanted him to write me an email telling me three things he did that week he was proud of. He agreed and he hasn’t stopped yet. That’s three years of what we now call “my three things.”
The process of doing this small positive reflection opened the switch of isolation and he began to see himself through a different lens. When his tour was over in Singapore, he volunteered on a missionary hospital ship out of New Guinea as an engineer – six whole months with the only pay being room and board on a cranky old ship that required efforts to be kept running as extraordinary as those the volunteers were doing for the disadvantaged people of New Guinea. He documented this work on a blog, continued to send me his weekly emails despite spotty internet connections and when he returned from his adventure, he called me with an inspiration. He wanted to start a non-profit that enabled veterans and merchant mariners to do good work for others as a means of healing wounds from PTSD and call it Even Keel, a maritime colloquialism for stability and balance. So, in 2018 he learned how to incorporate a non-profit and we started Even Keel Development, Inc along with his brother.
Another thing happened in 2017, my life took a turn in the wrong direction after I lost my own battle with that holy trinity of destructive behaviors. Knowing my suffering, Adam wrote me one week and said, “now it’s your turn. I insist that you send me an email every week telling me three things you are proud of.” While my consistency lacked, it served its purpose and I started to see threads of goodness that had woven themselves throughout my life story. However, I wasn’t quite ready to believe the story they told and on one dark day I sat on the beach and thought about swimming to the middle of the Chesapeake Bay until my arms could stroke no more and then just disappear and sink to the bottom. The striking thing about this moment more than others, I wanted to do it. I called another friend and asked him if I could come over, that I needed to not be alone. He quickly obliged and I made it through that moment.
When I told Adam this anecdote, he said, “DUDE! Why didn’t you call me!” I am sure there was some distorted logic that he quickly saw through and he called me on my bullshit. This time, he had the solution. He wanted a safe word so that “from here on out, if ever either one of us has that moment, we text or say that word and we drop everything to call and be there to help one another.” I don’t recall if he ever used it, but I did. One day I texted “Salvor” to him, the safe word we chose after a ship we spent months repairing following an unfortunate incident at sea. He dropped everything as promised and called me, listened to me for a few minutes and then said… “I want you to tell me three things you have done this week that you are proud of.” I did and the switch was opened, I made it through that moment.
For the next two years, life happened, and ambition intimidated us into non-action, as it often does. Our initial goals were big and nebulous like a gas giant, and we couldn’t put our arms around them. Then something strange happened, a pandemic, and the whole world found itself in isolation. But he and I had learned a hack to beat isolation at its own game: our three things. Now, the three founders of Even Keel meet every few weeks as life allows and refine our gas giants into firmament on which we can walk forward with focus and determination. The Even Keel movement will be one that recognizes the stresses experienced by the unique community of Merchant Mariners who provide the backbone of our nation’s economy and help take our nation to war and offers them a forum to acknowledge those stresses and offer needed help; in other words a place where they can open the switch of isolation before their destructive behaviors gut them. We will continue to refine our work and hope to have a tangible product in the channel by the end of the year to provide an even keel in that space between stimulus and response so that we can grow and be free.
In the interim, I look forward to my journey with Veteran’s Path using the MMAP they provide. Don’t isolate – join us.