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Lighting Our Way
1/13/2013

by Norm McCormack

The nature of combat requires that warriors be constantly on guard against and ready to respond to threats. Warriors have at their disposal a vast array tools to aid them in assessing the kind, level, and seriousness of potential threats. These run the gamut from “on the ground” human intelligence to highly sophisticated radio, electronic, and aerial interception and reconnaissance devices. Together, these sources of information provide a lot of data. These data are sometimes accurate, sometimes inaccurate, and often conflicting. Ultimately, warriors rely on their own senses to scan for, recognize, and respond to threats.

This task is much more difficult when darkness falls. When “things go bump in the night” in a combat zone, it is seldom the case that one is “imagining things.” Fortunately, warriors have a number of tools available, such as flashlights, spotlights, and night vision devices, to help them reduce the increased vulnerability that darkness brings.

To be effective, these tools must be used appropriately, which often means immediately. Once deployed, warriors must be ready to use the advantages these tools provide to identify the threat and respond appropriately. Illumination tools and warriors must both be prepared to go from OFF to ON almost instantaneously.

Unlike an electrical current, human beings cannot go from ON to OFF instantaneously. We need time to “reduce the charge.” But time is a precious commodity on a battlefield. Because this is so, warriors are trained to “supercharge” their systems when confronted with a threat. Since threat is omnipresent in a war zone, warriors go through combat deployments in a constant overcharged state. In a combat zone, one is never really OFF. 

Overcharging can have serious consequences. For example, when a car battery is overcharged for several days by a defective generator or alternator, the result is a ruined battery. In a household circuit, too much current can blow light bulbs, ruin televisions, and turn computers into doorstops. Regulating “emotional current” is as essential as regulating electrical current.

In an electrical circuit there are many kinds of switches. Each of these performs a particular function intended to produce a specific result. In a household, for example, circuit lighting is typically controlled either by a basic light switch with two positions (ON and OFF) or by a dimmer switch (rheostat). With the first switch, the circuit is either fully energized or completely de-energized. There is no intermediate position—fully ON or fully OFF is all we get. With the second, by contrast, we get a range of settings. Varying the amount of power going to the light allows us to adjust the level of illumination according to our needs. Depending on the circumstances, we can have full illumination (fully ON), no illumination (fully OFF), or anything in between. In this manner we are able to more appropriately respond to the demands of the environment.

Much like the lighting needs in our homes, the type and intensity of responses to the world around us vary with the circumstances. Sometimes—rarely—we need to go from OFF to ON instantaneously. Military training helps us develop this skill so that we can respond immediately (without conscious thought) to life-threatening events. This skill serves us, and those around us, well and has probably saved our lives on more than one occasion. This sort of skill (called a response set) is hard to give up. After all, we may be alive today because of it.

For most (in fact, the vast majority) of us this kind of instantaneous response skill is seldom needed outside the combat theater. But, because it was so important to our survival, we carry it into the civilian world. An old adage goes: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Our instantaneous (thoughtless) response set becomes that hammer. Everything we encounter, it seems, is a loose nail that needs hammered down RIGHT NOW.

Fact is . . . there are precious few things in the civilian world that present an immediate threat. When we respond to events around us (called stimuli) in an “all or nothing” fashion we frequently overreact and end up making things worse. Reacting to the world this way makes our lives more difficult.

Counseling helps us look at how we are “wired.” Through counseling we can begin replacing those basic switches with rheostats that allow us to respond to the world around us in a reasoned, graduated manner. Rewiring, in this sense, does not mean eliminating our abilities to respond appropriately to genuine threats we might encounter. A rheostat can go from fully OFF to fully ON just as quickly as a basic switch.

Rheostats increase our response options. In combat the tactical situation determines the amount and type of military power to be applied. Sometimes—again rarely—the only option is a “Hey diddle-diddle, straight up the middle” response. More often, we are able to employ supportive fire—field artillery, naval gun fire, aerial strikes—to help us overcome enemy resistance. By employing combined forces, commanders accomplish their missions more quickly and with fewer casualties. Here’s the point: Assessing the tactical situation and determining the type and lethality of threat results in a plan (response) that is appropriate to the demands of the mission. Reasoned and informed evaluation of the environment allows for prudent and graduated response.

And so it should be in our civilian lives. Allowing ourselves time to fully assess the stimuli we encounter reduces the likelihood of inappropriate responses (overacting). In this manner, we make our lives more manageable, are better able to enjoy the fruits of our labors, and, most important, are more readily able to give and receive love.


Norm McCormack retired after 25 years of service with the VA's Vet Center program. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, having served on active duty from 1969 to 1972. Since 1988, Norm has been adjunct faculty with Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb., where he teaches courses in the behavioral sciences and in management.

Give an Hour™ occasionally publishes columns of general interest by guest writers. The suggested length is 750 words, but we will consider submissions of any length. To submit a column, please e-mail it, along with a brief author bio, to info@giveanhour.org.



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