By Jim Janko My friend Janey recently asked me, "Have you let go of Vietnam? For you, is it finally over? Does it still shape your life?"
Janey knows that in Vietnam I was a medic for an infantry battalion commanded by George Armstrong Custer, III. Although my platoon wasn't annihilated as in the Battle of Little Big Horn, more than 50% of the boys were wounded or killed, and, of course, we killed and wounded some of those we called "the enemy." Janey's questions reminded me of the countless sleepless nights that for me have framed the aftermath of war. I complained to my friend about difficult nights, long nights, impossible nights.
Long ago I wrote in my journal: "I am looking for a kind of gracefulness that comes home to me shining with love; a love long-steeped in my old heart and bones, as well as in the heart and bones of star, moon, tree, flesh—flesh of all kinds as well as the stuff beneath the flesh, the love-light that is the architect of all things seen and unseen. Within pain, I know a place that is graceful. And within joy I go there again."
Although these words were printed long ago, it seems that each night and day I need to releam that pain, joy, and grace are inseparable. My tendency is to resist pain, to want only pure healing and grace, but true healing and grace visit me only when I open myself to whatever arises. Rollo May wrote, "There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain."
In Vietnam, I became numb to my own pain and that of others. I had no meditation practice, no spiritual community, and probably could not have survived emotionally and mentally had I let myself truly see the war. Despite my own limitations, I feel that the heart has room for every sorrow, joy, pain, and smile. In Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh remained compassionately awake in the midst of unspeakable destruction. Today the Dalai Lama, fully aware of the suffering in Tibet, continues to inspire those working for peace and reconciliation throughout the world. For me, these men are beautiful examples of what is humanly possible when the heart is open: Gracefulness, peace, equanimity, and the courage to embrace all things.
Jim Janko served as a medic in the Vietnam War and is currently attending a three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, in Massachusetts.