Men who Stare at Goats

March 2010:

This past February, after my second cancer operation (and a second donation of a major organ to the Stearns County Landfill) in 2 years, I took a month off to heal and reflect on the meaning of all of this for me and for how I envision my future. Thanks to a great team of surgeons, nurses, medical staff, supportive and loving family and the privilege of an adequate health care insurance plan, the odds are in my favor that I will have one – a future, that is.

Moments of terror and mortality force a number of nagging questions to the surface. Questions of “Which garbage vendor offers the best rates?” and “How can I get the grass to grow on the north side of my house?” give way to weightier matters. Indeed these times launch an involuntary vision quest, forcing you to wrestle with the angels who have come to assault you, wound you and then heal you in this “dark night of the soul.”

Though I had done a lot of my wrestling after my first surgery, I found myself assaulted anew with the experience of the second. One major assault came upon me during my recovery while I went with my cousin, Sharon, to see a little movie entitled, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” It chronicles the true story of the First Earth Battalion formed in the late 70’s by the US Army. Tasked with orders to “think the unthinkable,” it explored the possible applications of the human potential movement for its soldiers on the battlefield. It is a comedy – the first to be made about the still unresolved and sensitive war in Iraq. Like all good comedy, it deals boldly with the sensitive “truths” we as a culture are not yet ready to face.

I sat enthralled through the entire movie. It was one of those time warps where 2 hours seem like 2 minutes. When it was over and they turned the lights on, there was Sharon sitting with her arms crossed frowning and saying, “That was one of the dumbest movies I have ever seen.”

More than a little embarrassed, I was seated next to her, crying uncontrollably at the beauty this little movie stirred up in me. To her credit, Sharon didn’t call me stupid or make fun of me. On the way home from the movie, she simply said, “You are going to have to explain to me what you see in that movie because I sure don’t get it.”

So, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting, much to Howard’s limits of tolerance (he hasn’t had the chance to see it yet), on just what it is about this movie that touches me on such a deep level. I have seen it no less than 5 times since the first showing. (My daughter saw the movie, thought it was one I would like and got it for me for my birthday. She really got it right this year!) I’ve talked to others and the reaction seems to be extreme. Either you love it or you hate it. I think, like all good art, this movie is like a Rorschach test – you will see in it what you want to see in it. It is an invitation within the safe context of a comedy, to surface your own stuff. You could see it as a story of foolish insanity or one of wise aspiration. For me, as you might have guessed, it is the latter.

Most prominent among the many redeeming themes I see reflected back to me in “Goats” is the tendency for us to get stuck in our thinking by what we think we already know. We leaders, like the US military, tend to be a calculating, practical bunch. Most of us are from Missouri. We want to “see it before we will believe it.” This movie stands everything on its head and asks a profound question with far-reaching implications for us today. What if believing is seeing? What if we could see beyond the horizon? How would our reality change?

I won’t be so bold as to suggest how you might answer this question for yourself. But I will gladly leave it in your lap while I contemplate the next profound question in my life – “Where the hell did that remote disappear to?”

PS – Why do I feel like I just channeled Andy Rooney?


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