Military Psychology Sociology

Finding Purpose in Civilian Life

“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”Abraham H. Maslow

Ask any Armed Forces member about their purpose. You will likely get a clear and certain response: operational readiness, mission completion, and keeping one another alive. This clarity is pervasive in the military, yet it something very rare in civilian life. Sebastian Junger illustrates this issue in War, stating:

…throughout history, men… [at war] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives… they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.

This sense of clarity, “this rare psychological achievement” according to Maslow, is fostered within the unique structure of military life. Individual decision-making takes a back seat to hierarchically organized, group-centered processes designed for the purpose of group solidarity, strength, and operational effectiveness.

In an article titled What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:

The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced.

In my own research with Canadian veterans, one individual stated the following:

You get two paychecks in the military: you get your pay monetarily, but you also get paid psychologically in the military… a sense of purpose, focus, comradery, mission, and all those kinds of things… but when you leave the military often times they take away both of those paychecks, or at least one of them; they take the psychological pay.

In contrast to the highly structured collectivist focus of military life, the civilian world may seem unstructured, individually-oriented, and relatively meaningless, leaving veterans with a lack of purpose and direction. In War, Sebastion Junger writes:

In the civilian world almost nothing has lasting consequences, so you can blunder through life in a kind of daze. You never have to take inventory of the things in your possession and you never have to calculate the ways in which mundane circumstances can play out — can, in fact, kill you. As a result, you lose a sense of the importance of things, the gravity of things.

The classic sociologist Émile Durkheim emphasizes this interplay between social structure and individual purpose. He states, “…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” He places emphasis on the importance of strong social bonds that facilitate a sense of duty. Examples include religious life (in traditional contexts) and one’s occupational group (in modern contexts). Durkheim states:

“…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”

Lucky, in the U.S, U.K, and now in Canada, we are making progress building transition programs that help bridge the institutional gap. Team Rubicon is one of these great programs. They allow Veterans to regain a sense of purpose in civilian life by giving them the opportunity to serve those suffering from natural disasters. As stated in their mission:

Team Rubicon offers a unique opportunity to be part of humanitarian efforts with a unified purpose, mission, and intensity that is reminiscent of military experience.

Successful transitions to civilian life cannot happen in isolation. Beyond individual counseling, we need to understand the importance of innovative programs like Team Rubicon that allow individuals to regain a sense of purpose in civilian life.


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7 comments

  1. It’s pretty rough growing up a brat, then entering the military, then transitioning to civilian life. Lol your life’s contextual environment is suddenly gone and it feels like you are alone in a strange world without the comforting support of the military world.

  2. The military seems to be good at training for a group culture, but the civilian life is often solitary. Transition preparation might include self definition of goals, time management, and selection of a mentor or guide. Making your own decisions, rather than execution of orders, might be the most difficult part of this new life., not to mention the physical move and grief of loss of friends and comrades.

  3. Likely departing later this year, I am more than a little apprehensive about what I will lose more than any thoughts about what I will gain. 16 years….but the UK military no longer cares about its people, opting for unproven technologies and cost-cutting at the expense of its primary assets. That said, the cohesion that permeates all levels of the military is still strong and I’ll struggle to overcome the loss.

  4. Steve, I stonily recommend both “War” and “Tribe” by Sebastian Juger as great books to read. As a Vietnam Vet, but not Combat Arms, I have been interested in reading about the transition back to civilian life, the overwhelming suicide among Vets–but ironically in the 50+ age range–and the much better re-introduction to civilian life that Women have. As Junger notes in Tribe, the people who were least involved in the hardest action–combat, the London Blitz, etc–often have the worst reactions.

    The difference in the two ways of life–Warfare and Civilian Life–are very much different, The tribalism of an infantry unit could be explained can be considered in the Origin of the Species. The survival of the fittest, leading to the evolution of future generations. In essence, I have your back, and you have mine. Survival of the Unit.

    In Civilian Life, we’re not all going in the same direction. One member of a family, an office, etc, there is room for an introvert, perhaps even autistic, person who likes working individually on, let’s say, scientific research. A friend, who is more out-going, an prefers mute-tasking, might opt more for sales or market research.

    There will always be people who have trouble with changes in their life–soldier to office worker, married to divorced, forced career changes. Some will make the transition more easily than others. And perhaps, some will always resent that life change.

    When I left the Army, I believe that going back to college might have enabled to to make an easier transition. Thinking it through, considering your options and preparing yourself mentally, I believe, let’s you make the switch, at least, for considering what is going to happen, and that you will need to be flexible. And some people, like it or not, have trouble adjusting to any change whatsoever.

  5. The camaraderie you experience in uniform cannot be found again in the civilian world. If it could, that would make the transition much easier for so many people transitioning from military to civilian life.

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