“Do you think you could teach a class that relates The Odyssey to the modern veteran’s experience?” Our friend Evelyn, a high school English teacher, asked me three years ago.
“Sure,” I said. I re-read The Odyssey and realized that I didn’t identify at all with Odysseus. He doesn’t seem motivated enough to get home, he doesn’t delegate anything or trust anyone, and he eventually gets all of his men killed. Still, several aspects of his journey still resonated with me, and I discussed the parallels I found with Evelyn’s English class in May 2014.
It must have been ok, because I taught the class again last week. Between teaching those two classes, I started Odyssey Farm, which has given me another perspective on the journey. I’ll spare you the class outline for now because the most interesting learning point—for the students and for me— came from the students’ questions:
“How did you work through your struggles after returning home from the war?”
First of all, the assumptions behind these kinds of questions annoy me. Several times over the years that I did presentations for the Farmer Veteran Coalition, I had strangers who didn’t know my military background tell me, “you need to heal,” or something to that effect. They meant well, but the general assumption I hear in that statement is: Veteran = Broken.
“I didn’t have any PTSD or nightmares,” I explained. I stayed in touch with fellow Marines up and down the chain of command. I made new civilian friends when we moved back to Seattle. I got into woodworking and ultra-running. Sarah and I biked, backpacked, and kayaked throughout the Pacific Northwest. I came home to a great network of family and friends. I was happy as hell to be starting a new chapter in my life.
“So what do you mean by ‘struggles’?” I asked the class.
One young man in the front row clarified their question: “Did you have trouble making the psychological transition from combat back to civilian life?
I explained that after leading a rifle company in Iraq, nothing I did felt as challenging, interesting, and important enough to throw myself into as a vocation. My ultra-running was a great challenge but it only served me. Woodworking served me and a few others at best.
I started thinking out loud. “The real struggle was that I had to find new struggles.” Now they were drawn in. Or maybe I just confused them with the mental hairball that I’d coughed up. “I mean, I need to struggle,” I said.
I explained to the students that Odyssey Farm is thirty-two acres and that I do most of my work with a walk-behind tractor or by hand —such as hand-picking corn. (Another teacher, whose husband had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the National Guard, laughed out loud, “Oh, you are a Marine.” Compliment taken.)
After combat’s life and death decisions and counterinsurgency’s complexity, nothing else has satisfied my need for combined physical and intellectual challenge and a sense of purpose as raising food in partnership with nature to feed my family and my community. I enjoy the challenge and the process of farming this way.
My answer about taking on farming as my new struggle inadvertently reinforced some of the parallels I’d already drawn to The Odyssey:
—Transition is harder than it first appears: Odysseus’ ships are within sight of Ithaca when his men open the bag of winds which blows them all the way back to Aeolia. I integrated very easily back into civilian life but struggled to find a calling that felt equal to my challenges and rewards of leading Marines. And I’m just beginning to go down this new path.
—The need for a mission: Odysseus turns several events of his return trip into battles. I don’t go around picking fights, but I do understand the desire to take on a “mission” —some larger purpose that engages me fully.
—Arrival is a temporary state: Odysseus finally makes it home only to leave again. Every time I accomplish something that I’ve been working toward, it becomes a stepping-stone to the next thing I need to learn or want to do.
“I think we all need to struggle in our pursuits,” I told the class.
I’ve since learned that my gut response about struggle is backed up by the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi, we achieve our greatest satisfaction when we engage in something that perfectly matches a high level of challenge to our own high skill levels. He called that perfect match of challenge and skill Flow, what we often think of as being “in the zone”.
Selected struggle isn’t just for wacky-former-Marine-infantry-officers-turned-horseless-Amish-farmers (or the ancient Greeks). We find our best selves in that sweet spot where bringing all of our knowledge and skills is just enough to meet the challenge.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
Odyssey Farm, LLC.
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