March 2, 2014 by alie
There are different strands of culture shock. Most common is the rapid adjustment that comes with being uprooted and transported. Then there’s the shock of realising you are entirely the wrong person in entirely the wrong place. The latter breed of shock eventually fades into a feeling of profound deficiency. When I enlisted with the Australian Army at 18 I was diving into a new world, and the second strand of culture shock. I was in a world that I didn’t belong in. I had to face failure and weakness at every turn. Now a civilian I can look back on those years and see that the sense of failure taught me my most important lesson thus far and helped me accept myself and my failings, as well as my gifts.
I was barely a few months out of high school when I realised all my dreams would not be as I had dreamt them. The army seemed like a solution, or at the very least, a project; something to occupy my time while I worked out who I was and what I wanted. Before I’d had a chance to really think about it I was I was stepping off a bus at basic training.
Now, let the reader understand, I’m not A-typical of the women who enlist in the army: the Amazon whose gaze causes others to wither into corners and assume foetal positions. I’m an artist, I like kittens and cupcakes, and I know every line from Little Women. I exercised once in high school – it was awful. I got a D for effort in physical education because I was making daisy chains on the oval while everyone was sweating over a ball.
Nevertheless I was convinced I was some kind of war maiden and conjured images of myself hanging out of a Black Hawk firing a machine gun. So I dragged myself off the couch and started training. By training I mean hauling myself around the block like a potato and then patting myself on the back and nursing my injuries. The first time I did a push up I peeled myself off the ground and decided one was enough.
I don’t know how I got in. I remember I cried though, whether out of relief or panic I’m not sure. A few weeks later I was on a bus to Wagga Wagga for three months basic training. Our first point of contact was a very unhappy sergeant who was a perfect representation of his stereotype, right down to his toothbrush moustache. It was a four hour bus trip and he yelled the whole time. After a while his voice became a droning in the background and I tried to read a magazine while lingering near the edge of a panic attack.
When we finally arrived I stepped off the bus and thought ‘What am I doing here?’ I’d ask myself that many times over the course of my time in the army. It’s not a question that I have ever answered. After a few weeks I had shaven off my long hair to save time in the morning, I could strip and assemble a semi-automatic rifle, I had been mistaken for a boy more times than I would have liked, my nicknames were interchangeable between ‘Space Cadet’ and ‘Sh*t Fight’, and I was learning how to not take personally the abuse about how slow I was, how often my eyes welled up and how I could barely keep up in training.
After our graduation parade I was unrecognisable from the shrinking violet who’d stepped off the bus three months earlier, and not just because of the muscles and the buzz cut. I appeared confident and self-assured but I didn’t feel it. My confidence was false bravado that, if dropped for a moment, would shimmer and break apart. I couldn’t remember who I was outside of my uniform. I never cried and I was terrified of my own weakness. My vulnerability had let me down so many times over those last few months that I couldn’t face failing again. At one point I had horrific tonsillitis for two weeks without going to the doctor because I knew I’d be ridiculed if I let myself be defeated by an illness. I had to wait for dehydration and near exhaustion to take me out before I could let anyone look after me. I had seen friends mocked for succumbing to heat stroke or glandular fever, because how dare anyone let their body get the better of them. As I lay in hospital with a vein full of tubes I thought, how ridiculous that I should feel ashamed of illness, or my body’s need for care.
At this point you’re probably thinking ‘Wait, isn’t this supposed to be an article about accepting weakness?’ Well, don’t worry. We’ll get to that. As life often goes it is the moment of total weakness and inability that provides the starting point for transformation. I did my time and left the army. Still paralysed by my fear of weakness I started uni and began the process of remembering how to do life away from commands and schedules. That was when I realised that which we are never allowed to admit to ourselves. There are things that I’m good at.But it isn’t lobbing grenades out of concrete bunkers. Instead of rejecting the thought, as is often socially demanded, I found myself embracing this wonderful thing that I had forgotten. I was so pleased that I had something special that I could contribute to the world. Einstein once said ‘everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ I’m not usually an ‘inspirational quotes’ person but this spoke volumes of truth to me. I realised that I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t deficient, I had just had the misfortune of being surrounded by things I wasn’t very good at. In the army I was a fish trying to climb a tree. To admit that I’m just not that good at some things liberated me from the constant struggle for perfection. I can be honest with myself now. I can’t run very fast, I can barely count, I’m so unorganised that my life is usually teetering on the edge of chaos – but it’s actually OK; unless I pursue a career involving running fast, counting, and being organised.
I am good at things, just not army things. It took a year for me to comfortably allow myself to be vulnerable again. I still have dreams about my army days. Dreams where I fail at everything and where I’m running through a gauntlet of ridicule, but those dreams, and the memories only serve to remind me that strength is not always a virtue, and weakness not always a vice. In fact sometimes it takes great strength to be weak, and sometimes the most freeing thing to do is accept that you’re just bad at something. We don’t have to be good at everything we put our hands to. I’m not condoning giving up entirely, but we don’t need to covet perfection at something we will never be gifted at and beat ourselves up every time we fail. Dare to accept your failings. It takes great strength, and great courage, and it’s the most important step towards being content with yourself and accepting who you are instead of battling with who you are not.