Metta-Care: Bill Moyers Documentary “The Good Soldier”

“As America prepares to observe Veterans Day and President Obama weighs sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL broadcasts a powerful documentary about the impact on soldiers of learning to kill – or be killed. THE GOOD SOLDIER follows four veterans – one from World War II, two from Vietnam, and the fourth from Iraq – as they reveal how the experiences of battle changed their lives.”

Bill Moyers “The Good Soldier” Web Page

The Good Soldier Web Site

Good Soldier ImageBill Moyers’ documentary “The Good Soldier” is incredibly powerful and moving. I wept through much of it.  I was alternately overwhelmed with compassion and appalled as veterans explained their suffering and the suffering and death they brought to others when swallowed up in hatred and revenge.

In spite of the remorse and regret these soldiers convey, some might think these men are simply monsters.  But they are not.  They are people just like you and me.  They are fathers, sons, and brothers.  They are our neighbors, our countrymen. They are us.

We know now that very ordinary, “decent” people will do unimaginable evil in the name of good, in the name of some cause, in the name of security, in the name of the homeland.  And we should be grateful that the “heart of darkness”—the unhealed anger, hurt, vengefulness, and fear in each of us—is not tested in the heat of battle when our life and the lives of others are on the line.

Honoring our Soldiers with Honesty

So to me, this documentary honors soldiers in a way that patriotic, flag-waving tributes never can.  Why?  Because it’s honest.  It’s real. It deals with what really happens in war, even “good wars.”  It shows the very real and long-term costs and effects of killing another human being, even when the killing seems justified or unavoidable.

But the documentary isn’t about whether or when war is  justified or necessary. It’s not even about whether killing is ever justified or right. It’s about what happens to our brothers, fathers, sons, and friends when they learn how to kill—or be killed.  If individually and as a society we do not fully fathom the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual cost of war, we will again and again send our family members and friends off to die with an ignorance and indifference to the suffering of other that itself is a crime against humanity—our humanity and other’s.

Tears and Sympathy Not Enough

I doubt anyone can watch “The Good Soldier” and not be deeply moved.  But if we simply watch, maybe shed some tears, and then go on with our lives as before, we might as well have watched a soap opera or action movie.  Likewise, if we watch and are simply overwhelmed with sorrow and an aching heart, we do little to help ourselves or others, and nothing to change the world.  And even if this documentary spurs us to social or political action, the problem of hatred, war, and  killing can never be ended with these actions alone, as laudable as they may be.

From the standpoint of the Buddha, and of most spiritual teachings, the end of war begins with ending war in ourselves.  As J. Krishnamurti puts it plainly: “War is merely an outward expression of our inward state, an enlargement of our daily action. It is more spectacular, more bloody, more destructive, but it is the collective result of our individual activities…”

“…Therefore, you and I are responsible for war and what can we do to stop it? ….you and I, seeing that the house is on fire, can understand the causes of that fire, can go away from it and build in a new place with different materials that are not combustible, that will not produce other wars.  That is all that we can do. You and I can see what creates wars, and if we are interested in stopping wars, then we can begin to transform ourselves, who are the causes of war.”

Meditation and looking deeply into one’s feelings with mindfulness and non-reactivity are essential skills for self-transformation. So are heart-felt metta, prayer,  and the deep aspiration to change oneself for the better.  But unless we are literally sick and tired of the warlike effects of hate and anger in our own lives, we will feel little urgency to get rid of them.

Suffering in the Mirror of Your Heart

I invite you to watch the “The Good Soldier” as a kind of mirror of your own heart.  Instead of just watching for human interest or to be entertained, try to be really present with your own heart and feelings as these soldiers’ stories unfold.  Think of the soldier talking as a son, a daughter, a father, or grandfather.  How does that feel?  When watching something so difficult and challenging, it’s so easy to shut down, to close off our feelings and responses as a natural defense mechanism against pain.

When, or if this happens, give yourself metta, right in that moment of shut down.  If you have the ability to pause the show, do so and just stay with your heart for a while.  What do you feel when you shut down?  What are you afraid of?  Don’t judge or condemn, just observe with openness and self-acceptance. See what that does. Then go back to the show with the aspiration to feel what’s happening with a greater compassion and a desire to grow in loving-kindness so that you can help yourself and others.

If on the other hand, you feel overwhelmed with pain and sorrow at the suffering of the soldier or people the soldier has harmed,  stop and take care of that pain and sorrow.  Give yourself metta.  Love yourself for caring that much, for having compassion, for aching with the heart of another aching heart.  That very ache is evidence of what Tibetan Buddhism calls bodhichitta, the awakened heart that leads to enlightenment and liberation from all suffering.

When Overwhelmed by Suffering, Take Care of Your Heart

I found I had a to stop a lot during “The Good Soldiers” to take care of all the feelings and emotions that were aroused by the soldier’s pain, suffering, and remorse.  And I found it natural, when I gained equilibrium, to send out metta to these dear suffering hearts, who I might never meet, but who are nonetheless my fellow human beings.  I also found myself sending metta to the victims of the soldiers, and their dear hearts and families.  It took a lot of heart-work and compassion, but finally, I was able to break through the darkness and sorrow into a deep conviction that love can transform and heal even the worst wounds of the heart.  There is a path that leads to the end of suffering, and we can walk it!

Doing metta, taking care of our own wounded hearts, and reaching out  to the wounded hearts of others, are skillful means for  truly changing the world.  If we want to end war, if we want to help bring an end to cruelty and revenge in society, then we have to start at home.  We have to work with ourselves. We have to bring whatever  is closed-off, wounded, and unawakened in us into the embrace of a wise and unconditional love.

If we can’t respond compassionately to the suffering or plight of others, then we probably learned, a long time ago, to repress or condemn the cry of our own hearts.  That deadness in our hearts is something to take a look at—not with judgment or condemnation, but with compassion and loving-kindness.

Dear friend, may you and I and all beings everywhere learn to hold our wounded hearts with great love and awaken to the invincible tenderness and goodness in each of us.

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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