Author: Dr. Frank P. Gonzales is a psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).
Several years ago when I was working in a Tribal setting, an Elder told me an old Native American wisdom story about the internal struggle between positive and negative that all of us go through from time to time.
The story goes…
A Grandfather was sitting by the fire with his two young grandsons, teaching them about the difference between good and bad, positive and negative. The Grandfather tells his grandchildren, “There is a good wolf and a bad wolf living inside each of us. The good wolf is love, compassion, courage, generosity, fortitude, discipline, laughter and every worthy virtue a human being is capable of. The bad wolf is anger, hatred, laziness, jealousy, envy, greed, sloth and other vices a human being is capable of. In each and every one of us, these two wolves are engaged in a fierce battle.”
Sitting on the edge of their seats the two grandsons, hardly able to contain their anticipation, blurted out excitedly, “Which wolf gets to win Grandfather!?”
“The one you feed”, the Grandfather answered. “The one you feed.”
Deployment experiences can result in a shake-up of our basic moral beliefs, cause us to doubt our ideals and question the value of life. It’s not hard to see how deployment might feed the “bad wolf”. For many of us it is easier to feed the bad wolf, giving in to negative emotions and giving up on virtue. This can be especially true after those experiences that tap our strength and stamina, and cause us to question our most fundamental assumptions about all that’s good and bad about life.
If we keep this story in mind, we can conceptualize how negative changes in behavior following a deployment can be a natural outcome. These experiences feed the bad wolf. Many returning service members experience behaviors and feelings such as anger toward friends and loved ones, post-traumatic stress, isolation, anxiety, spiritual crisis, etc., sometimes for the first time in their lives. While such outcomes can be considered normal consequences of abnormal experiences, we can also use these feelings and behaviors as signs that we have been changed by our deployment and need to spend time feeding the “good wolf” for our sake and the sake of our loved ones.
Feeding the good wolf requires insight, discipline, practice, and dedication. All of us can acknowledge the simple truth that good behavior is better than bad behavior, and that both good and bad behavior are most often rooted in how we’re feeling. If you find yourself engaging in negative behavior because you feel bad most of the time, and those bad feelings just aren’t going away, you owe it to yourself to get help and resolve those negative feelings. Who wants to feel bad all the time?
Behavioral health professionals can help you with strategies and techniques to reduce or eliminate the effects of deployment experiences and get you on the road to feeling better. Behavioral health providers are available at every military installation. The Veteran’s Administration also offers behavioral health services to all its beneficiaries. For service members and their families, chaplains of every branch of service are trained to help you deal with negative feelings and behaviors, whether they are related to deployment or not. Chaplains are also trained to recognize when people are in need of assistance from mental health professionals and can help you make contact with the appropriate provider. Your primary care provider is also trained to assist you with getting professional behavioral health assistance.
The story of the good wolf and the bad wolf holds much wisdom in its simplicity. Sometimes we need to recognize simple truths in order to be able to acknowledge our own basic needs, such as allowing others into our lives to help us with our struggles, or that those struggles are simply part of being human. We can strengthen ourselves by realizing when it’s time to feed the good wolf, and to make sure he stays well fed. We owe that to ourselves and those that care about us.