Water rushes and curves around the rock where I happen to be sitting. Bits of fluff from the tree on the other side of the stream lightly ride the swell of air over the water. A butterfly lands, hesitantly, on my knee. All noise aside from that of the water fades into obscurity. This moment, only, remains.
In the Army, peace can be hard to find. Not just because we train for war, but because our processes and systems seem all designed to deny one mental peace at any cost. There are always more and more distractions that seem to come with rank and position. And advances in technology tend to bring those distractions closer to us rather than keep them at a distance. Emails, texts, calls, group webinars, all battling for space in your head. And all the while we’re told to keep a good work-life balance.
Suuuuuuuure, totally easy to do. Right.
There’s also a built-in glitch that most of us have after a few years in: always looking ahead. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Army teaches us to do long-term planning, to always be thinking 2-3 steps ahead, with contingencies for every little thing. While this is valuable for military operations, it is of questionable value in our personal lives. We tend to game events out in our heads, playing conversations out before they even happen in real life. Our brains are places of business and activity – it can be hard to find a way to turn that off. It can be very hard to live in the moment.
Leaf mold falls from my boots as I hit the first bits of rocky ledge on the trail. My pace slows as my heart rate elevates, climbing further and further into the trees. Leaves fade into firs, with brief gaps of heart-pounding vistas out over an ever-expanding valley. My next step is purposeful – onto that rock there, to pull myself up with that bit of root, to the next bit of climb. No energetic bounds – only deliberate and purposeful steps.
Which is why I found hiking to be incredibly therapeutic. Now, let me just say, I was not always to this way of thinking. In fact, for the majority of my life, I was incredibly anti-hiking and anti-camping. Why would I voluntarily do those things that the Army makes me do? And then, just last year, something clicked inside me. And I became one of those people.
But for those with an Army mind, it’s uniquely suited to our purposes. You can satisfy all the planning parts of you brain with the preparations – packing lists, route plans, meal plans – but once you’re on the trail, you have to live in the moment. The simple act of placing one foot in front of the other becomes your sole occupation. A misplaced foot, a mistimed step – those mean a sprained ankle, a cracked rib, or worse. All powers of the mind must be pushed to remain in the present. And after hours and hours of this, with screaming muscles and tired bones, the present-ism becomes a habit.
A look ahead: more boulders. A look back: the boulders I’ve already clawed up. Legs: tired. Arms: tired. Brain: exhausted. Drop the pack, take a sip of water, sit on a rock. The world spreading out below me, completely open. I can reach out and touch a mountain. I eat a power bar, thinking of how comfortable my bed at home is, about how it doesn’t have the five thousand insects trying to eat my face that this current spot on the mountain does. But to go back is defeat – and possibly harder than going forward. So, shoulder pack, and onwards and upwards.
The Army likes to talk a lot about resiliency – about building habits to combat stress and anxiety. Counter-intuitively, this is usually done via a PowerPoint presentation in a group setting. Which usually creates additional stress and anxiety. There’s nothing more catered to building resiliency than sitting on the summit of a mountain, relishing what you’ve accomplished while also harboring strength for the descent. Because you can’t stay there, no matter how much your failing leg muscles demand that you do.
At the end of the day, we all need to find that one thing that can ease the stress that is inherent in our profession. Whether that’s sleeping, writing, baking, hiking, running, biking, gardening, reading, gaming, or cutting topiary bushes into the shape of your favorite 19th century strategist, that’s up to you. But you need to have something. If you don’t have a release – some space to find peace – burnout comes quickly. Find something where you can live in the moment. Because if there’s one thing the Army’s good at, it’s taking you out of the moment.
One foot in front of the other, as the miles peel back under my boots, the swaying rhythm of my gait over the ground and rocks, as the roar of the river drowns the sounds of all but the most persistent birds. A chipmunk barely blinks as I go by. Neither of us are thinking about PowerPoints, or briefings, or reports, or inventories, or anything Army-related at this moment. Food, on the other hand, is prominent on both our minds.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.