Accept Reality

This is a sneak preview of the upcoming book “Live Your Purpose”, here sharing the second chapter. As usual, I welcome your feedback!

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How did it come to this? It was a dark night, much the same as the evening before, and the evening before that. The train I was on slowed as it pulled alongside Mount Victoria Station after its almost three hour journey from Sydney. There were few passengers aboard at this hour, and a handful alighted with me onto the platform as the train continued on its journey toward its final stop.

The stationmaster had once told me the story about the station on a previous night. A legacy of the solid Victorian architecture from a bygone era reflective of the vibrancy of that town when it was a hub for industry. From time to time, I would see the same stationmaster on different nights after alighting and moving across to the opposite platform on other side of the station. Depending on the timetables, there was usually only a few minutes to wait until the return train to Sydney.

The stationmaster was a kind and older gentleman. I’m not actually sure if he was the stationmaster, but he did speak about the history of the station and its place in shaping the social structure of that town with such a sense of nostalgia that I assumed he was more than just another worker pulling a shift. I’m sure he had seen it all before, and that there was little that might surprise him. He was always cheerful and polite when we exchanged a brief greeting in those cold, dark, early hours with his expression making it seem that it was perfectly normal for me to be changing trains close to 3 am in the morning.

I sometimes would change the destination so that I didn’t become a known figure on the train to regular passengers or those employed by Sydney Rail. Hamilton, located on the way toward Newcastle, was another station that provided a long train ride with a short turnaround travelling from Sydney and back again on the same evening. There were usually ‘quiet carriages’ on these trains where it was possible to find an empty seat. Settling into a comfortable position, I could sleep in relative safety more or less undisturbed with descent rest for a little over two hours. The turnaround allowed a brief interval to sharpen my wits and stretch my legs so that I didn’t arrive at dawn feeling too groggy.

Arriving at Central Station before sunrise, a connecting train to Circular Quay would meet the first ferry sailing to Manly which was always a good place to begin the day. A run along the beach and some exercise before a quick dip in the water helped to celebrate the fact that I made it safely through another night.

This was not the way I ever expected to be returning to Manly, where much of my initial Army training took place after graduation from Duntroon. I used to run and swim in that same beach but in different circumstances many years earlier before the beginning of each workday where I learnt the essential skills necessary for the life that awaited me in regimental postings that would follow.

Maybe I shouldn’t have written this story. Perhaps it is of too great an embarrassment for some of my friends and Army colleagues. If you’re horrified reading about how the mighty have fallen as at one point in time when I ended up sleeping on trains, then good. I hope it rocks your world and opens your mind to the reality of how some people are living their lives.

Homelessness in many respects is a little bit like how some people talk about the plight of veterans. This is a particularly sensitive discussion, and so I am approaching it with care. Just as there is no stereotype for someone who is homeless, neither is there one for a veteran who might find themselves struggling across a spectrum of hardship. Each person is challenged by their own unique circumstances. It is important to note that not all veterans are struggling. Stereotypes are unhelpful.

I remember undertaking research as part of a Churchill Fellowship through the UK and US in 2005. While I was in London, I had an opportunity to speak with a social worker who was caring for the needs of British veterans. She informed me about a recent change to homeless trends involving British veterans following an intervention of the Prince Of Wales which occurred after his visit to a homeless shelter where it was estimated that 25% of people sleeping on the streets were veterans. The Prince insisted that organisations work to change this travesty as it was not the standard those who had served in the military ought to expect. For all of the fury of the Prince, this prevalence among the homeless is a trend that occurs similarly in many countries which I have visited.

Coming back from loss as a challenge confronting veterans is not always a question about homelessness, and in the main homelessness is not the key issue to be addressed in solving the problem. Homelessness is often symptomatic of other conditions. Many veterans bear scars from their wartime service in ways that are not always apparent. Some are physically scarred in ways that are obvious, and it was humbling to run alongside many limbless veterans in the Marine Corps Marathon last year in Washington D.C., but let me return to those stories later in the book.

This chapter is about accepting reality as a necessary step to generate momentum in making forward movement when coming back from loss.

I’m intentionally avoiding being prescriptive in defining what loss might look like for different people specifically. Loss which is the result of physical injuries might on the surface seem straightforward, but to understand the impact those injuries have on someone’s day to day living is a more complex task. Moral injury as outlined at the introduction to this book is shaped by a complex range of causes and consequences that are too broad to include within a sweeping definition. Additionally, how different people respond to the experience of the same incident will always vary. Impact of PTSD and degraded mental health often do not present until some time after the events that caused them occurred. I respect the fact that people know their own situations well enough that there is no need to categorise loss.

It is true that there is a unacceptably high number of veterans who are homeless. That being the case, neither does it define the experience for all veterans. I sometimes wonder how much good comes from annual charity events such as the “CEO Sleepout”, where executive level professionals each year gather to spend a night together in sleeping bags on top of a cardboard flatpack to raise awareness for homelessness within our cities. It is good that people with influence are taking time to make a difference in some small way as best they can. Perhaps the unintended consequence of awareness raising campaigns like this is they run the risk of stereotyping homelessness in ways that are not accurate. We definitely ought to have more compassion for those who are homeless, and perhaps part of that is to first understand who they are and why they are there exactly.

We first have to understand and acknowledge loss in order to overcome injury and get back into the game. Loss does not define people, but it is important to understand as to how those circumstances arose in which people find themselves. So called “lifestyle choices” that appear to result in people choosing to be homeless and living in poverty are extraordinarily self-defeating. This is not the same as not wanting to be anchored to a house or a rental agreement. Personal responsibility should drive our freedom to live a lifestyle commensurate with our own aspirations, but ought not to be an excuse to lean heavily on the welfare system.

The loss we encounter is often embarrassing and encourages within us a sense of shame such that people figuratively chose to wear a mask that creates a facade projected as their identity to the outside world. Compounding loss is this desire to hide the truth of their lifestyle making it invisible to others. Masks are worn to deny reality which ultimately does us no good. Take a moment to consider where you are now, and ask yourself if there are masks you wear. Be honest with yourself. Some masks are worn for good reason, but it is a denial of your authentic self. To Live Your Purpose, you will need to accept reality and be you. When coming back from extreme loss, it takes courage to accept reality and step away from hiding behind the masks that it is often easier to wear.

Turning the page to new opportunity as we begin anew on coming back from loss is not as simple as just shrugging off the past or affirming a motivational battlecry. An important part of coming back from loss is to accept reality which can stop us in our tracks as we are challenged to take off the masks we have hidden our authentic selves behind. I can’t pretend to know what that might mean for you. Every person is different.

Accepting reality can mean that we are challenged to change how we present our identity from that which has been manufactured over time. Embracing authenticity is among the most important things and also the hardest things we might ever have to do. Our identities are very complex compositions, formed from all of our experiences creating a thickly woven worn fabric which includes a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Accepting reality is not as simple as to pick out the threads we want to let go of, but might involve considerable introspection and possibly some counselling with professionals. Accepting reality may mean letting go of the masks which we have made for ourselves. Sometimes, the masks we wear might project an identity of victim, and maybe and identity steeped in denial. To Live Your Purpose means to abandon the identity of victim and reject the temptation to live in denial. We have to let go of the mask.

A very real challenge in this process is addressing grievances that are held. Accepting reality involves making sense of past events, many which might have been traumatic or left you damaged and impoverished in some way. This is a deep process of listening, reflection and introspection. These are activities that can be done on your own through a rigorous process of journalling, but there is perhaps a better opportunity to make progress through discussing these issues with a trusted mentor, friend or professional counsellor.

What to do with grievances is not easy to describe. The resolution sought by each person will differ, and besides no two people will see the same situation exactly the same way. Grievances are often presented to a faceless institution where the people who might have been involved in a series of events in the past are now no longer involved, or where the deadening effects of bureaucracy can frustrate even the most patient and determined individuals. Acknowledging that grievance might take a long time to resolve is perhaps a necessary first step in this process. Exploring the possibility that a resolution satisfactory to the outcomes pursued might never be achieved can be both helpful and for some heartbreaking. This does not mean to give up, but to accept that the outcome of the grievance is not the key action that will determine your capacity in coming back from loss.

Coming back from loss is not predicated on resolving all grievances held. This necessitates almost the branching of two parallel actions as you begin the journey to Live Your Purpose on coming back from loss. One of those branches involves taking action to overcome injury and get back into the game. The other branch of action is pursuing resolution of a grievance and accepting that the outcome of which does not determine your ability to Live Your Purpose. This can be a troubling reality to confront, but necessary.

The sensitivity required when discussing the need to accept reality is particularly relevant when considering the impact of mental health has on our perspective and performance. Our decision making and ability to make sense of the world around us can become clouded by an altered mindset because of the challenges from mental health. Accepting reality is not code for “getting over it” or dismissing legitimate concerns. Make no mistake, this is hard work.

Accepting reality involves acknowledging the impact of mental health in the same way that we might acknowledge a physical illness or injury. Too often mental health is regarded as a taboo subject because we consider it across a negative spectrum only, as if on a scale of minus ten (-10) to zero, with the aim of improving our mental health condition to get to a point of being “not unwell”. That is an incomplete way of seeing the potential for wholistic wellbeing, a journey that must extend “Beyond Zero” as if along a spectrum from zero to plus ten (+10). It is unrealistic to assume that we might only experience very positive experiences of mental health, for example only along the upper range if measured along this spectrum from minus ten to plus 10. But similarly, why settle for a life lived with degraded mental health that measures only at the lower range of this spectrum. Part of accepting reality is to take the action that we can to improve our mental health towards a better state of wellbeing.

There are no quick fixes in this regard. The phenomenon of a choice between a red pill and a blue pill is largely the work of fantasy from films like The Matrix. This might call for changes to our sleep habits, our diet and water intake, maybe our medication, our exercise routine and the amount of time we spend consuming social media and television. I’ll come back to this theme in Chapter 3 where I look at the process of healing, as well as in the added section at the end of the book titled “Beyond Zero” which outlines the Plus 10 initiative designed to improve your wellbeing.

Accepting reality can be a very unsettling exercise in ways that ought not to be underestimated. The help of trusted friends and reliable professional counselling is important as they can help us to see ourselves in different ways than we might otherwise have the tendency to do. Consider journalling this experience of introspection. Also note the the challenges you might face are more common in the lives of others than you might expect or that they are prepared to admit. Don’t be proud. Be gentle with yourself. Try not to go it alone. Involve others.

It is true that some reflections and thoughts may trigger emotional responses. Feelings of anger and frustration are not uncommon in the face of change and new circumstances, as will be the case when beginning anew. The difficult part of loss and injury is that they have a compounding effect into other areas which can result in a very real downward spiral. Withdrawal from engagement with other people is often an indicator of degraded mental health as is a loss of enthusiasm and activity. These things diminish productivity resulting to a loss of income, the consequence of which is often a loss of status and increased financial stress. The greater the stresses, the more these compound. Try not to dwell on your losses, but see these indicators as a sign that some form of intervention might be required. We can’t always be our own catalyst for change, and this is why communicating with other people is critical when taking stock of our situation to accept reality. Those who have been in a situation like this will know that it is very hard to understand or appreciate unless you have experienced it yourself.

One questions that can assist is to ask yourself what you think might be holding you back. This is a very important question to reflect upon as it relates to accepting reality. Most likely a satisfactory answer will be elusive. Addressing this question is in fact the beginning of a process that may take many years, not many hours or days. A disciplined capacity for introspection is a skill many people have not spent enough time practicing. It might be difficult, but make a start regardless.

Chris Appleton, a wise mentor to many now as much as across his distinguished military career, recently made a comment to this effect which is worth quoting here: “Introspection is such an underrated investment.”

Invest in you and your purpose. Spend some time reflecting on what might be holding you back from accepting reality and getting on with the most important work ahead of you, that being to Live Your Purpose.

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Will you let me share a short story about the value of mentors and participation in community groups? Help can be found in the most unlikely of places. This is a short story about my good friend Paddy, and the benefit I gained from participating as a member of the Auburn Artists Network.

Serendipity was at play when I first met Paddy, an astute lady with a wealth of experience to draw upon about people and the rich diversity found throughout the world. I literally helped her cross the road at the time I first encountered her, and from that point we struck up a friendship where we would meet for coffee once a week. We shared a mutual interest in Papua New Guinea, and over the course of many conversations I soon found her strength emerge as an informal mentor where she had a capacity to draw out ideas that I would later act upon. One of those ideas became the subject to an artwork that drew upon a nautical theme.

I had become involved in a group of local artists close to where I was living at the time near the Sydney suburb of Auburn. An artists collective gathered on a monthly basis, and soon our attention turned to the subject of the annual art exhibition which was accepting works expressing the theme “Turning Point”. I liked this theme, and my good friend Trish encouraged me to think about submitting an artwork.

I explained to Paddy that I was going to interpret the ‘turning point’ as that moment when a person flags the need for help. I drew inspiration from the nautical signal flag “I Require Assistance” which is a red diagonal cross over a white background. Gareth, a good friend who himself served in the military with a distinguished career, told me where I could buy a sheet of old canvas very cheaply. I found some heavy metal weights, a length of dowel and some rope, all at no cost. Inspired by the large square of cloth, I sewed all these things together to create the representation of both a flag that might be flown from a maritime vessel and also a sail that would catch the wind and propel that same vessel forward. I bought some relatively cheap acrylic paints and set to work using the undercover garage at the entrance to my house as a makeshift studio.

On the face of the canvas I painted a representation of the theme using the motif of a red diagonal cross over a white background, but in such a way as to illustrate the defiance I experienced in tackling my pride to hoist this signal asking for assistance. I used the paint to reflect the turbulent journey involved as I wrestled with myself at this turning point of asking for help. The four arms of the red diagonal cross represented different aspects of how I was challenged by the task of signalling “I Require Assistance”. On one arm, the extremity of the red began with a very faint signature from only a small brush that then grew into the full width required by the signal. Another arm portrayed a perfectly formed signal, straight and symmetrical. A third arm was lost is the mire of a darkness representing the hopelessness which can overwhelm our confidence in being able to resolve a situation. The fourth arm burst brightly into a radiant golden explosion as if to express the deluded belief that I had the ability to achieve the task ahead of me without needing to ask for help and didn’t actually need help from others.

I submitted the artwork which was a story of its own, and the best was yet to come when I finally saw it on display as part of the exhibition with other artworks from people in the community expressing what the theme ‘turning point’ meant to them. I didn’t win any prizes, but I was very satisfied just to see my idea come to life in the public domain. Making the artwork was inexpensive, and it helped me to think it through an important idea that also brought me one step closer to writing this book.

Ideas don’t work unless you do. This story about Paddy and the Auburn Artists Network is about the value of the community and mentors. Without Paddy as a sounding board I wouldn’t have arrived at the clarity to commence the artwork. Without the Auburn Artists Network, there wouldn’t have been the opportunity. Without the encouragement from friends, I wouldn’t have found the resources I needed to bring this work together. The painting was an expression of my accepting reality. I needed to involve other people more and ask for help. Ironically, it was through the help of other people that I was able to find the benefit of participation in the community which helped me to accept reality and ask for help.

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At the end of the last chapter, I invited you to sit quietly for 10 minutes to practice your breathing as a form of meditation. Consider doing that again, and consider making it a daily habit. It will deliver dividends greater than you can anticipate.

There is a different activity I want to invite you to try at the conclusion of this chapter. I want to encourage you to take action and create something. For many people, art is something they only see in museums and on the walls of galleries, but there is no reason why we can’t all be artists. It is not a question of comparison with others, and one of the important lessons of art is to suspend self-censorship.

Maybe you think you don’t have the right materials or not enough time. You’ll find an envelope containing three sheets of differently coloured paper inside the pages of this book. Experimenting with new ways of doing art opens new possibilities in how we see ourselves and the world around us, often in ways that we least expect. Try this simple activity and see how you go. Remember to suspend any judgement about your performance. This is about doing and participation.

Set a timer for a period of 10 minutes. Start the timer. Open the envelope you can find in between the pages of the published book (If you’re reading this on Medium, you can do this right now simply by finding three sheets of paper nearby. Go on- grab some paper. I’ll wait until you return).

Pull out the three pieces of paper and examine each one. Look at them and try to see exactly what is distinguishable for each sheet. Are there any creases or blemishes? How straight are the edges? What sort of differences are there between the colours? This shouldn’t take long at all. Now tear each piece of paper into small pieces or strips. It doesn’t matter how many pieces or strips. You might tear them only in half, or maybe into 100 small pieces each. You decide.

Now lay all the pieces on the surface in front of you. If you’re doing this sitting on a bus or the train, that’s fine too. Don’t worry about what other people might be thinking. Begin to organise and move the pieces to make a shape or a picture, and if need be tear the paper into smaller pieces to give you more “paint” to spread on your “canvas”. This art form is known as making a collage. Congratulations, you are now an artist!

This exercise is also a form of meditation. It doesn’t really matter how much noise is around you or where you are doing it, but focus exclusively on the pieces you have torn and assemble them in any way that makes sense to you. You have 10 minutes to play with, so avoid the temptation to dismiss this quickly. When the 10 minutes has ended, consider getting out your handphone and taking a photo of the collage you made. I dare you to share it with your friends!

Once you have made something, it is there. It wasn’t there before, and you made it. It doesn’t matter that there are rough edges where the paper is torn, and in fact this can often lend more appeal to the work itself. The work doesn’t need to last forever, and you can put everything back into the envelope with no consequence. Use it again later if it want. Every time you do it it will be different. Sharing your art is a way of collaborating. This activity also takes on a new dimension if you do it with another person working with the same set of torn paper. Try it.

Making a collage doesn’t have to be about anything. Art doesn’t need to have meaning, and it definitely doesn’t have to be deep. Sometimes it just it is. You can make it about you or about a theme, or it could simply reflect an abstract pattern or shape. It’s your call.

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Consider starting a journal if you don’t have one already. You can just use this book and write anywhere on the pages or in the margins. You don’t need fancy.

Don’t rush the journey on coming back from loss. Deepen your confidence in your own ability as you Live Your Purpose. The next chapter is about making progress and also having patience.

Accept reality. Start to ask yourself what, if anything, is holding you back. Try new things as you take steps to move ahead on coming back from loss. It might be difficult, but make a start regardless.