The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly on what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

More On Forgiveness…

A friend who read my post on forgiveness raised a few questions about the process of forgiving. Specifically, when you feel someone whom you considered a friend has betrayed you, how do you forgive them and move on with the friendship? Especially if the so-called friend doesn’t even acknowledge that they hurt you.

Let me just clarify that the act of forgiveness, as I see it, is quite a stand-alone process. It doesn’t make the behaviour that was exhibited acceptable or okay. Nor does it have any bearing on what happens to the relationship you have with the person you are forgiving.

When you forgive, you are not saying “I’m okay with what happened to me and I will go back to being treated that way by that person”. Quite the opposite.

You forgive so that the pain and anger within you is released. But you acknowledge that what happened was hurtful and distressing and unacceptable. In some instances it’s an opportunity to promise yourself you will never let yourself be put in that situation again (which is what I did when I forgave the boss who bullied me).

There is no obligation to resume any kind of relationship with the person you are forgiving: that’s totally up to you and it’s only dependent on whether you want the person to be in your life. Similarly, you don’t need to confront the person who has hurt you to tell them what you have gone through because of them and what pain they caused you.

When we’re hurt we often have a little vindication fantasy where we confront the person who has hurt us and they confess their guilt, acknowledge our pain, and apologise. The danger is that despite how you’ve played the scenario out in your head, the person may not react at all like you expect and you may feel doubly hurt as a result.

Often it’s helpful to understand why the person who hurt us behaved as they did. What was their motivation? Did they realise they were hurting us?

You don’t actually need to understand the behaviour, though, to forgive the person exhibiting it. Nor does understanding it make it okay and acceptable. What understanding will help with is working through the issues with the person if you choose to keep them in your life.

Forgiveness is about you. It’s not about the other person. You can forgive, and move on. Whether you choose to keep the person in your life and how you go about achieving that, is a totally different matter. Importantly though, it is a choice.

To Forgive, Divine

Last year I learnt how to forgive. You might think that at 42 years of age forgiveness was something I probably should have already mastered but I’m not talking about schoolyard forgiveness. I’m talking about learning how to forgive the big things. The things that really hurt us.

I’d always thought forgiveness was over-rated. “I don’t forgive and I don’t forget” used to be my mantra. I didn’t understand how people who had suffered terrible pain or loss at someone else’s hands could forgive that person. Understand why they had committed the crime or injustice, sure. But forgive them? How could you do that? And why would you want to?

The thing is, Izebelle, the woman who taught me how to forgive, made a very compelling argument. She explained that when someone does something to upset you, you need to thank that person because they have helped you identify something in you, some wound, that you need to heal.

You need to do this so you can release the anger or upset within you in order to find balance again. We are all flawed; none of us are perfect. Forgiveness, Izebelle said, is about not taking on board the negative emotions – fear, jealousy, rage, evil and so on – of the other person. These things manifest in you as anger and bitterness, but left unresolved can lead to stress and even serious illness.

No one had ever explained it to me like that before. What she said immediately resonated as I recognised a lot of the anger and bitterness I felt was caused by unresolved issues from the past. People that had hurt me and that I could not forgive. Things that I had done that I could not forgive myself for. Things I could not let go of.

I’d also had a lot of personal experience with stress causing illness, including serious illness, and a lot of secondhand evidence, too, from within my family. Suddenly it all made sense to me: I could see why forgiving people would be a good thing to do. As my friend Joanna, who works in healing and wellbeing, put it when I shared my revelation: you don’t forgive them for them; you forgive them for you.

One of the first things I did when I first learnt about forgiveness was to finally forgive a manager that had bullied me ten years before. I had felt an ongoing hatred of this person and had never been able to let go of the pain she’d caused me. Yet now it was actually easy to forgive her as I realised I no longer wanted inside of me that bitterness, hatred, pain and anger. She could take it back, thank you very much. I forgave her and moved on.

Since then I’ve forgiven a number of other people, too, including myself. I realised late last year that if I still feel any anger over an event in my past it is probably a case of unresolved forgiveness. I try to identify the wound that needs healing and once I’ve done that, I thank the person, forgive and let go. “It’s in the past, let it go” is my new mantra.

Whenever it happens, I feel lighter; less burdened. Like I am literally carrying less baggage.

There have been other unexpected benefits, too. I recently met up with a friend in the foyer of the building where he works. It happens to be the same building that I worked in when I was bullied. For a very long time my memories of that workplace were tainted with such distress that I found it too painful to even walk past that building. He brought this up but I told him it was okay, I no longer feel that way.

Suddenly a flood of happy memories from my time in that workplace before I was bullied, things I had forgotten for over a decade, overcame me. I realised that releasing the painful memories had allowed the happy memories to be set free. I felt like I was reclaiming some of the lost fun, happiness and joy in my life.

And it felt divine.