Happy birthday, America. Thank you. And you’re welcome.
(M., I apologise for writing this without your permission, but I could not find you and know that you’ll forgive me, and thank you from the bottom of my heart,)
Years ago, I was suffering from PTSD so badly that I could hardly get out of bed, much less keep a job. It took a friend of mine who’d had it far worse to come over to my place and remind me that I had a family and needed to get off my ass, stop feeling sorry for myself, and do something. Anything. So I took the easiest path I could think of, and re-enrolled in college.
Since my major line of study my first time at university had been political science (one of my favourite oxymorons, along with “friendly fire” and “Great Britain”), I majored once again in political science. But what I really wanted were some “soft” courses; you know, like under-water basket weaving or something. And so I found a course entitled “Peace Studies”. Sounded easy enough.
Wasn’t. None of it was easy for me, because everyone could tell that there was something “wrong” with me; I was constantly running my fingers through my hair and across the back of my neck; sweating, trembling, and the like. I even had to excuse myself from several classes on account of panic attacks.
Side note; I once had a nurse repeatedly correct me on my use of the term “panic attack”. Every time I said it, she would say “anxiety attack.” Finally, I had to explain to her that “anxiety” is when you’re worried about something, and that “panic” is an animal instinct that causes you to either fight or flee for your life.
I’ve done both. Prefer the latter.
Well, my professor was a wise and kind man, and realised what I was going through, although he didn’t know why at first. All of the other students in this “Peace Studies” course were kids, and they just assumed that I was psychotic.
Except for one.
He was (is) an African man, my age, and a refugee from a particularly war-torn part of that continent. We’d met before, briefly, but he’d had some bad experiences himself, and he too recognised that I had PTSD, because he had it himself. And although my professor taught me many lessons of great value, this African gentleman taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned in life; it was about independence.
As the course went on, I naturally wrote, raved, and ranted about the conflict in the northern six counties of Ireland, a subject which most of the youngsters had little or no knowledge of. And so, as “The King of Over-Disclosure”, as my wife refers to me (amongst other titles), I revealed the source of my “troubles”.
My soon-to-be friend from Africa wrote and spoke about other subjects. He was always very calm and compassionate.
At the end of the semester, my professor announced that we would be doing a project that involved pairing up with another student. This, I did not like. But there was hope; one of the students was a pretty Irish-American girl who had written about “The Troubles”, and I had come to her defense on more than one occasion when she was criticised by my fellow classmates, Alas, it was not to be; my professor made the calls, and paired me with the gentleman from Africa. I knew a little about his country and it’s predicaments, and we jointly decided to do our presentation on that very subject. Seeing as how neither one of us was fond of crowds, we decided to do our work elsewhere, and I invited him into my home. But before he came, I had to ask him an important question; “Do you drink?”
“I can drink some wine, but only a little.”
“What about beer?”
“Oh, I love beer.”
We got our project completed and got high marks for our efforts. But my true education from our meeting was a conversation we had over cans of beer.
This man has such a sincerity about him that, no matter what he says, you cannot take offense to it. While we were drinking, he asked me, “Do you have post-traumatic-stress?” Then, before I could answer, or refuse to, he said “I know, I know. Tell me.”
So I told him. Everything.
“And how do you deal with it?”
I held up my can of beer and pointed to it, and then gave him a list of medications that had been thrown at me over the years.
He shook his head and said “No, no. That is not the answer.”
“Do you have PTSD?”
“Tell me. I told you; now you tell me.”
And so he did. This man is deeply religious, in a very genuine way, and believes that he was given a gift/curse from god at birth to foretell the future via his dreams. Given that he lived in a war-zone, god or no god, he one night had a dream that his village was about to be wiped out. He immediately went about contacting a missionary organisation with pleas to take his very small village across a lake into a bordering country. Eventually, they came through, but told him that he and his fellow villagers had to be at the lake at a precise time, due to the danger at hand. And so he told everyone in his village (less than 200 souls) that if they did not leave the next day, they would be killed. Almost all of them left with him the next day. The rest were slaughtered. The surviving members of the tribe made it to the lake, and almost made it to the boat that was to carry them to safety. That was when the hostile tribe caught up with them. Havoc ensued; some fled, some were shot. My friend was forced onto his knees at gun-point, and forced to watch as these “soldiers” tore off his wife’s clothing with the intent of raping her.
And then something incredible happened.
The “commander” of these soldiers looked into the face of my friend’s wife and recognised her; she was a nurse, and years before, she had saved the life of this man’s wife; he immediately ordered his men to stop, which led to in-fighting, which in turn, allowed my friend and his wife to escape unharmed (at least physically), find their way to Europe, and eventually, America.
After hearing this, I was, to say the least, ashamed. Since I am a jack-ass (ask anyone who knows me), I threw up my hands and said, “Okay, you win.”
My friend looked at me with sad and compassionate eyes and said, “I did win. Because I did not have to fight. And you don’t, either.”
“But you struggled; now you’re free.”
He shook his head and said “No. Freedom is here”, pointing to his temple, “and here”, pointing to his heart. “No other place.”
Independence can be defined in various ways; it’s usually used in a political sense. But we’re all dependent on someone else for something; the thing I learned from my friend is that if you’re free in your head and your heart, the universe has a way of rewarding you. That’s peace studies. That’s independence.