Milton and Hilton

Can Paradise Lost be Regained?

Apparently, my last essay, “The Pit and the Big White Tent, A Road Unexpectedly Traveled”, touched something in many people. As I write this, that essay has been read 1054 times. The terrible tragedy on 9/11 nineteen years ago is still very much alive in me and it appears in many others as well. It may be that the wounds of that day will never fully heal, only pass into history once all those alive at the time have left this world just as Pearl Harbor is now more a fact of history rather than a personal experience.

War seems to have a lasting effect on individuals and nations. The Chinese have a proverb that says, “ If you want to understand a country, look at its last war.” In the case of the United States, it is difficult to say which is our “last war” as we have had continuous war for nineteen years. Maybe that is why we, as a nation, are in such chaos. We have not had the time to reflect on our past actions and take the required political and social action to have a more peaceful existence.

My last essay was a remembrance of the start of our current war(s). I wish it were a memoir of our last war but it is just the start of a long narrative that I have lived with our military.

Last week opened up memories that had been buried as I went about my life as a husband, father and psychotherapist. This was the first time since 9/11 that I had an audience, you, whom I wanted to share my experiences with on the anniversary of that fateful day.

In sharing, it appears that many of you were touched by my narrative. Some readers generously took the time to send me their personal experiences with that day and the subsequent aftermath. One reader wrote a very poignant account of being in New York on 9/11 and working directly with survivors. She recounted helping hose down business men in Armani suits who were coated with the toxic ash of the Twin Towers. She wrote of comforting a woman laughing hysterically who ran down ninety floors to survive the collapse. She had also survived the bombing attack eight years earlier. My reader said it forever changed her and her view of the world. Another reader wrote that my essay triggered her memories of working with survivors of hurricane Katrina as a Red Cross volunteer.

One reader wrote to say she was upset with not knowing what happened to the man fired from his job whom I encountered profoundly intoxicated. I responded that I too have thought about that man over the years and wondered if he got the help he obviously needed. I wrote her that as a union member that poor lost man would have had access to substance abuse treatment services if he wanted to try to overcome his alcohol issues. I have learned through the years that war provides many questions and answers very few.

There are several people that resurfaced in my memory after writing my last essay. I remembered one day when I was working on a large army base, a colleague knocked on my consulting room door and asked me for help. Her client had stormed out of his session saying he was going to kill his commanding officer if he tried to make him deploy again. I told my colleague to call the Military Police and I ran out of the building to see if I could find the man she described. He was in the parking lot smoking a cigarette. I slowly approached him and introduced myself. His hand was shaking as he removed the cigarette from his mouth. I spoke as calmly as I could. I asked about his family. I asked about his children and how they were. I talked with him as a father to a father and empathized with him about missing his children. He told me that he was not going to miss another of his son’s birthdays. He was deployed when he was born and had missed his last two birthdays. “If my commander tries to make me deploy again before his next birthday, I’m going to kill him. I just can’t do this any more.” I did my best to convince him that he needs to talk with someone at Behavioral Health who could help him sort out what his options were and figure out how to not do something that would end up taking him away from his son for even longer. I managed to get him to calm down enough so that when the MP’s arrived, he was willing to let them take him to the base hospital. I don’t know what happened to this soldier as we seldom got feedback after they entered the military health system. I have thought about this man many times over the years.

I have no idea how many individuals, families and couples I have seen since I began my work with our military. It is surely in the thousands. War is a corrosive activity that eats into the fabric of individuals and the societies they come from. No one is left unscathed. While only a relatively small percentage of our population has actually gone to war the effects have reached all Americans whether they realize it or not.

As a nation, America has spent vast sums of money on war since 9/11. There are the overt costs of war: equipment, arms, bombs and bullets, training, etc. There are the much longer term costs to society through life-long medical care to wounded veterans and the life-time payments of disability to all those injured in war. Even more out of the eye of the public and much harder to quantify, are the social costs of marriages damaged or destroyed by long separations of service members from their families, the impact on children from those disrupted relationships and the mental and emotional scars left from the experience of war.

During my time counseling service members, the term “moral injury” has gained acceptance when talking about the impact of war on individuals and society. No matter how just one’s cause may be, war damages us as human beings. It numbs us to the value of life. Could this be a contributing factor in our current domestic divisions about whose life matters, or how many Covid-19 deaths are acceptable? Could our polarizations be a mirroring of nineteen years of unending war where loss is constant and resolution appears unattainable?

I have referenced in my title and subtitle, John Milton* and James Hilton**. Both are English authors who wrote about the loss of paradise through the desire to obtain something they were not supposed to have.

In Milton’s, “Paradise Lost”, Adam and Eve are forced out of paradise because they ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In Hilton’s, “Lost Horizons”, Conway and the beautiful Princess Lo-Tsen leave the paradise of Shangri-la to return to the “real world”. In both of these, the men are enticed to take a forbidden action by a woman out of either love or lust. In each story there is great regret for their actions and a subsequent attempt to regain paradise.

America supposedly went to war out of anger and a desire for revenge. What was missing in the justification was that we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Going after the perpetrators was almost a secondary thought. In fact, the actual mastermind of the attack of 9/11 was not caught and killed until nearly 10 years later.

Since 9/11, America and much of the world has struggled to regain its balance. Peace, economic stability and now health continues to elude us. “Make America Great Again”, may have resonated so strongly in a significant part of the population because it touched our desire to have peace and prosperity, to return to “paradise, Shangri-la”. The problem may be the behaviors encouraged by our current leadership have not been about sharing in the benefits of America. Instead we have been urged to see our differences as something to be denied, suppressed or beaten into submission. We have a president who thinks making America Great is achieved by vilifying anyone who disagrees with him. In reality, a society cannot be peaceful if it insists on one point of view or one ideology.

My guess is, if the story of Adam and Eve is literally true, it was Adam that tempted Eve. Women generally want to bear a family in peace and safety. She would have no incentive to break the rules God had given her. Men on the other hand, are risk takers. It just seems to me that it is far likelier that it was Adam that took the first bite. In Lost Horizons it was actually the colleague of Conway, Mallinson, a man also in love with Princess Lo-Tsen, who convinced Conway to leave Shangri-la.

Our current unending wars were not started by women. They were started by ambitious men who arrogantly believed the United States could reshape the Middle East in their vision of democracy. The lone dissenter of the resolution for war was Representative Barbara Lee from Oakland, CA. For her dissent, she was subjected to death threats.

There are times I wish I could forget some of the things I witnessed in my work: the images of weeping parents and spouses at memorial services, the suicidal clients, the shattered marriages. Sometimes I feel like I am fighting a mini war against human kind’s most destructive impulses. I get weary at times, but when I see a service member heal a past emotional wound, or a marriage that finds mutual love again, I am refreshed and strengthened. I dream of Shangri-la, but for now, my work is where it is supposed to be.

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* John Milton, (1608-1674) “Paradise Lost”, first published 1667

**James Hilton, (1900-1954) “Lost Horizons”, 1933

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