Preface
“The movement from powerlessness to creation, from simply surviving to living more fully, with more radical honesty than we have been taught, is not easy. But Ben reminds us that it is absolutely possible, and it is worthwhile.”  -Seema Reza

Beyond Survival – Becoming Human Again

by Ben Weakley

“No one is coming to save us, so we create, we connect, and we save ourselves.”

In a writing workshop, a line appears from my subconscious as if by magic, repeated again and again down the page of my notebook – no one is coming to save us.

I close my eyes and I am thirteen years old, in the passenger seat of my mother’s boxy, gray SUV, speeding down the dark stretch of I-24 that carries us home from dinner. She’s drunk. We are silent. Weaving between broken white lines and solid yellow ones. My young brain busies itself modeling what the force of impact between 4,155 pounds of Isuzu and guardrail or ditch or tree will do to my 95-pound body. I count the miles before our exit, the minutes remaining.

I do not ask her to slow down. I know better, because this is normal. I could be ten or fourteen. This could be a scene from any Saturday night from my childhood. There is no calling Dad. There is no calling 911. There is no wise aunt or uncle to confide in. Inside the abusive family raising me, we are divided into addicts and enablers, which means no one talks about addiction or enabling it. These contradictory truths must survive at all costs, even if I don’t.

I know then what I know today– no one is coming to save me.

Whatever reasons I gave for joining the Army almost twenty years ago, I did it to learn how to save myself. The Army taught me how to adapt to my surroundings, how to be uncomfortable, how to make decisions under risk, chaos, and uncertainty. The Army taught me the difference between the body that wants food for comfort and pleasure and the body that needs food to carry out the act of war, between the body that wants rest to soothe psychological discomfort and the body that needs sleep because it is dancing on the razor’s edge of sanity. The Army taught me how to push beyond pain, beyond hunger, beyond fatigue. To survive.

But, survival is not the same thing as salvation.

The Army also taught me that I was a machine, charged with killing and, if necessary, dying. The same Army taught me to be morally neutral to both acts.

The act of war is fundamentally destructive. I know this because I am complicit in killing. I gave orders. Orders that left American teenagers and twenty-somethings maimed and wounded. Orders to kill people who were labeled enemies of the United States of America by history and bad luck.

At least once each day, I close my eyes and see a street corner in the neighborhood of East Rashid, Baghdad, in early 2007. A young soldier kneels beside a pile of garbage on the street to wipe his brow in the morning heat. In another universe, the bomb hiding next to him kills me. But in this life, I come home, have a long marriage, advance in my career, and raise children. He does not.

With a better combination of discipline, attention, and competence, I might have saved him. I did not. No one is coming to save me from the consequences of my own survival.

I spent the first half of my life consumed by destruction. The only way I can face the rest of my life, my own loss of humanity, is to create. It is the act of creation, with the intention to connect, that makes us human again.

When we engage in art, we live into our common humanity. Art is more about how we approach the act than it is about the act itself. Yes, painting and ceramics and poetry. But not for the painting, the bowl, or the poem; for how the act of making and sharing the painting, the bowl, or the poem connects two or more human beings. We can make art from any object, any moment, as long as we approach it as an act of creation, an act of connection. Pause and give your undivided attention to someone you love. That, too, is art.

When I read a poem out loud, I create a moment with another human being. I use my body to create something shared, something received by another body, experienced by another mind. That is the closest I can come in this broken world to binding myself with something sacred or eternal. No one is coming to save us, so we create, we connect, and we save ourselves.

I paint when I lack words for griefs or loves that come in waves so large they threaten to drown me. Where the walls of my office once held guidons, plaques, and other trophies memorializing my time as a soldier, there now hang my own creations – abstracts with subdued cool blues and purples balanced against warm yellows and oranges, framed by black lines and white space. What they hold is ineffable, but in sharing them with a select few people, I am witnessed in ways I cannot be witnessed through words. I save myself.

Art, the act of creation, cannot balance the scales of an unjust world. We cannot paint or write our way out of destruction, and I cannot create enough to earn some kind of grace. But I know this: if I am to give meaning to my apparently random survival, I must write. I must paint. I must make beauty from ugliness by loving my children in ways I was not loved. These are selfish acts. That I survived to do them at all is undeserved. This is how I move forward.

Artwork by Ben Weakley
Untitled by Ben Weakley

Ben Weakley spent fourteen years in the U.S. Army, beginning with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and finishing at a desk inside the Pentagon. He writes poetry and prose about the enduring nature of war and the human experience for veterans, their families, and anyone who would help them bear witness to war and its aftermath.

His first collection of poetry, HEAT + PRESSURE was published by Middle West Press in 2022. His work appears in Military Times, ONE ART, Sequestrum, Cutleaf Journal, and Wrath-Bearing Tree, among others. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee with his wife, two teenage children, and a well-meaning, but poorly-behaved hound-dog named Camo. Find him at https://jbenweakley.com