When the Backstreet Boys sang, “show me the meaning of being lonely,” circa 1999, I was eleven years old, reaching out to the television screen where they all unite at the end of the video in the street, neck muscles straining, singing, “there’s something missing in my heart.”
I know, I thought. I know. The Backstreet Boys were talking to me in code, and I couldn’t talk back. There was a virulent strain of heartlessness infecting the males in my community that, to my dismay, had missed me; I only understood it externally, under its code name: toughness. Or more precisely, everything I wasn’t, everything that embodies monolithic Black male masculinity. I had only then realized that part of my loneliness was due to this lack. I began consciously shedding what was left of my thin skin. I tried my best to quit or conceal things I’d ever been called a faggot or a girl for: reading, writing, drawing, thinking, listening to any music artist who wasn’t Black, being nice to anyone, not getting any pussy, crying, playing any games except sports, etc. In some ways it worked; I got into a few fights/suspensions, cursed easy targets like my mother and grandmother, I responded to sadness with anger instead of tears, rubbed some lady parts (consensually, I’m not the president), and kept secret my otaku tendencies.
By the time I met people who I felt like I could be a human with, namely Ryan and Terrell, then, maybe a handful of people in high school, it was an entirely new adjustment, one I had to weigh the worth of. Still, there always felt like there was a layer I wasn’t getting at, or couldn’t get to with anyone. I tried to find it in women, though that manifested physically, and often with disastrous results…
I never expected though, to feel less lonely in the military. People say it all the time sure, that “unbreakable bonds are forged in combat,” but that always sounded silly, and oversimplified to me. Moreover, I wouldn’t even consider my own Iraq tour, or my military experience in general to be combat; I’ve felt more at risk, physically and mentally, growing up. Sure, a few people died or got blown up, but only the method of violence was new. I had already had a gun drawn on me plenty of times, been beaten bloody, and niggas were getting shot in Philly at record numbers. One summer while I was in Baghdad I joked with friends about how much safer I felt there than at home. Violence, or potential for such aside, the military does force us in some way–regardless of how averse we may be to it–to share some form of group identity.
That identity might not be that of the hyper-patriotic idiot who believes that killing “sand niggers” is the only way to ensure his country’s freedom, but it will be one that subjugates the rigor of placing personal identity first, for the comfort, defense, support, or otherwise existence of the group. You could be the group who spends all their time bullshiting at the smoke pit, the soldiers who spend every second of downtime at the gym, the gang playing Call of Duty and Halo like it’s life, or the niggas who smoke Philly blunts in front of their CHUs while saying nigga more than anyone you’ve ever known and for some reason wear du-rags in country, sup Burris.
Whatever group one ends up in, it’s rare not to be in arm’s reach of another person, or to essentially be wed to some larger identity for survival that thrives on even the most minute cooperation. In such intensely molded, selected, then re-molded groups, there is a unique opening for vulnerability. Such safety and dependency on daily living feels like the most natural state of existence. It wasn’t until reading Sebastian Junger’s piece “The Bonds of Battle,” that I could relate that truth to everything outside of the military, and to my own generalized loneliness. Junger speaks specifically about managing PTSD, but instead of approaching the problem on an individual level, he considers the lacking connectivity of our society as a whole to be the problem. It is well documented that when soldiers say they miss war or the military, they are talking about the bonds they’ve made with other soldiers. The problem here (and with Junger’s re-printed title in Best American Essays 2016) is the assumption that these bonds rely on intensely violent circumstances.
By using anthropological, psychological and historical lenses, Junger positions certain aspects of military life–and other tightly communal practices–as simply superior, in a social sense, to the competitive, individualistic, market-driven, and plainly selfish existence that we now live in. It isn’t just the soldiers who need to adjust and be treated for anxiety and depression, it’s our society itself, running rampant with mental health issues not unlike those seen in PTSD that needs to be better.
There are complications of course; I think that on examining myself–as one does when writing a memoir–two things become a clearer source of fury: shallow connections, whereby say, an individual professes infinite love and closeness and demands reciprocity, yet I still feel like we are strangers; and–this one could in some ways be a millennial thing–but overt acknowledgement for passive actions. The former, exacerbated by knowing what it’s really like to feel close to someone, occurs most often with dating, where my partner’s version of closeness likely mirrors society’s view on partnerships, which is to say, comparatively empty to what I desire, satisfied mostly by being in the same room with the other person; this only serves to intensify loneliness. The latter, overt acknowledgement for passive actions, might be less obvious. This is the minor favor or polite courtesy scenario: anything from door holding to errands. While I tend to subconsciously hold doors for people or do a favor and not consider it a big deal, I forget too often that other people do. One time a man was holding the door for several people leaving the laundromat, including me, and as I walked through I was talking to Jojo and he said “what the fuck, you not even gonna say thank you?”
I didn’t notice what he said until later, because any time I hold a door–a task which requires nothing real from me, for which I expect nothing in return–I’m thinking about something else entirely and who knows what the people say who walk through, or if they say anything. This gets exacerbated though, consider the stereotype that military people do anything for each other. That shit is mostly true, not that you would do anything for anyone that you’ve met in the military, fuck that. It stems from this intense unification, where at times, you literally treat those other people (at least who you consider part of your group) as if they were you. Whether that gets into watching each other’s kids and pets; driving thousands of miles on a whim; loaning money, cars, or homes; whatever, depends on the group and doesn’t in any way, at least to me, feel like an inconvenience, or even something I consciously think about. Still, I need to work on balancing out how/when such things might feel extenuating to other people.
Just this one Jung essay drudged up a ton of shit for me to think about, like all good writing should. So, back to reading his most recent book, hoping it’ll contribute to the memoir as well as the working novel: God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer.