How to Find Meaning After the Military
By Eric Burleson
A Brief Primer
One cannot possibly describe in 1000 words or less the heart-wrenching, soul-crushing, and life-affirming process of trying to find meaning and purpose following separation from military service. After having crystal clear purpose during service, the relative void following separation can feel incredibly overwhelming. That said, there seem to be distinct phases to finding meaning that every veteran must go through in order to find their purpose.
The process for me has taken a great deal of time and very conscious effort. I’m fortunate in that I have always tended to be someone who is comfortable considering big questions of life, the universe, and everything, so maybe it has been a little easier for me than for some of my comrades. In any case, I want to share the things that I’ve learned in my own process and in mentoring hundreds of other veterans over the past several years. These steps
Here are the three most important things you can do to help you find meaning after the military:
It may seem counter-intuitive that to think about your future, you must consider the past. There were great reasons to join and stay in the military for as long as you did, and it’s important to acknowledge those reasons. Additionally, it’s impossible to be in the military and not have some appreciation from the tribal culture it produces.
When a person decides to separate or retire from the military, they lose a great deal. They lose structure, purpose, daily rituals, and a host of other things that must be grieved. By not grieving properly, we can not effectively move on with our lives. Grief gives us the wherewithal to look forward.
It’s very common for veterans to drink heavily following separation from service. Sadly, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism is heavily promoted in the armed services. This is terribly counterproductive to properly processing grief.
Alcohol prevents certain phases of sleep from occurring, and those phases happen to be responsible for processing emotions such as grief. So instead of numbing oneself from painful emotions, alcohol suppresses and delays that processing to a point that can become unbearable. There’s a reason alcohol and depression are often so closely linked.
There’s no way to tell how long it will take to properly grieve after separating; every person is different. What’s clear, however, is that by consciously doing so, you are more likely to grow into a fulfilling life post-service.
2. Appreciate what you currently have
It’s quite easy in our advertising and media-heavy world to lose site of those things right in front of us. We are constantly assaulted with cleverly produced images and messages whose explicit purpose is to generate demand, i.e. a want in us. This sense of desire is underpinned by a sense of lacking.
When we walk around constantly considering all the things that we don’t have, such as a good civilian job, a nice place to live, or a plan for a future for our family that includes security and growth, it’s easy to forget that we have a great many things going for us. Military experience can be highly valuable, and the attributes of self-reliance, self-discipline, and hard work can serve us very well in the future. We also can enjoy the fact that we can build our relationships with our families and finally pursue those long put-off hobbies and interests we’ve had.
It may take from several hours to several days to fully and properly appreciate everything that we have. I’ve found for myself that the most effective way to do this is to get out into nature by myself, sit down, and breathe. It’s incredible how, when removed from the onslaught of stimuli, we can be grateful for so many of the things right in front of us.
3. Expand your self-concept
Expanding your self-concept means embracing different interests and parts of your personality that have nothing to do with the military. The idea here is to counter what could be called concentration risk.
When so much of a person’s identity is wrapped up in one or very few parts of their lives and those things are removed, their very identity can be severely threatened. Consider this analogy. Imagine that you are a stay-at-home mother and wife whose entire family is unexpectedly killed in an accident. Aside from the obvious trauma of losing loved ones, can you imagine how difficult it would be to find purpose day-to-day?
Depressing as it may sound, veterans often face exactly the same sort of trauma, and in the same magnitude, when they separate. After a career in which nearly every facet of life was directed, shaped, or influenced by their employer, suddenly losing that force is threatening and traumatizing. Even if it is the best possible thing for a person, the loss of all of that structure is difficult to endure without finding ways to grow past it.
The best way to combat concentration risk is to diversify. You can expand your self-concept and diversify your identity by actively developing other interests, relationships, and goals.
Interests can include hobbies, art, sports, books, or even volunteering. The world is a wide and beautiful place with no limit of interesting things to pursue. New interests help you to develop parts of your personality unique to you, and along new vectors that you may not have had time for before.
Relationships should include people to mentor or to be mentored by, new friends who have nothing to do with the military, professional peers to work closely with on new projects. Ultimately, our relationships with others can help expand ourselves and help us to grow in new and fulfilling ways.
Goals can be related to extracurricular interests or professional concerns. These give us specific benchmarks to work towards, helping us to give shape to our efforts. Continually meeting goals and developing new ones fill the voids that leaving the military produces.
Doing these three things can help any veteran to understand better their role in the world following separation from service. They may also help veterans to find new purpose and meaning to their lives and keep them moving forward.
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