Award-winning war correspondent Shawn Rhodes shares what warriors taught him about men, fear and freedom.
Cody: “That’s a pretty cool sidearm you got there. What is it?”
Four-Leaf Tayback: “I don’t know what it’s called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes a man’s life.”
From Tropic Thunder
I thought that was a cool quote – until I heard that sound for myself.
When I was 21 years old, I was embedded as a war correspondent with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. We were watching a road outside Fallujah one night, waiting for insurgents to hide bombs for our patrols the next day, when a man with an AK 47 began pacing back and forth in front of us. Not a smart move.
The Marines I was with peered through the darkness at him with their night-vision goggles and radioed a report back to their platoon commander. We knew our orders – anyone walking around at night with a weapon was not there to build a better Iraq. The word came – “Take him out.”
I’ve never heard the world go completely still before but in that moment, it did. No wind, no insects, not even the sound of the man’s sandals crunching the pebbles beneath him – just the crack of a Marine’s M-16 rifle and the crumple of what was, seconds before, a living human being.
For years I would be startled and bolt upright in bed, hearing that shot echo from my dreams into my waking life. Fear would grip my chest like a vice, and I did everything I could to get away from it – it was still there, at the bottom of every bottle.
Has an event in your life affected you so much that you avoided anything that might remind you of it?
I wanted to know why fear affected people long after an event, and how warriors in the past dealt with the violent events that shaped them.
My life’s work has been to study warriors – not only how they train, but how they think. As a young man, I was drawn to the stories of warriors who could do things I couldn’t. They won the battle, got the girl. What did they know that I didn’t? How could they go through horrible things and still love openly?
How could we, as men, come to peace with the things that scare us?
The answer for me was on the other side of the world from Iraq, in a martial arts temple nestled in the mountains of Japan. There, I met a different kind of warrior – one who worked to resolve conflict before it started. As I trained, meditated and worked in their organic garden, I found a peace I’d been searching for since I heard that rifle shot on the battlefield.
In that sacred place, warriors learned not to take life, but to preserve it. To nurture it.
I asked my teachers, “What should I do with this fear I have inside me?”
I never expected the answer they gave:
“The same thing you do with joy … embrace it.”
When I delved deeper into warrior cultures, I found that traditional warriors learned to embrace all emotions – including fear. Because their lives could be cut short any moment, they had to live as much as they could now, not in ten years. They learned ways to embrace every emotion they felt, whether it was based in fear or based in joy.
This stood in stark contrast to the way I was raised – I was told, “Men shouldn’t show emotions.” “Never cry.” “Fear means you’re weak.” “Put that off until you’re better prepared.” “Wait until you graduate.”
As men, society teaches us to restrict our emotions and passions. The cost is all around us – immature men who never learn the power that comes from maturity.
Real men, we’re told, are made of stone.
And yet, time and time again, I would see warriors on the battlefield break down in tears for their fallen friends. Passion drove these warriors to go without sleep and food for days on end. These were some emotionally-driven people.
I wanted that openness, that passion in my life. I wanted to come to peace with the sound that rifle made in the desert that night.
As a martial artist, I had to learn how to let go of everything I thought I knew about how to move in order to feel real power – the power that comes from moving closer to the earth. As a warrior, I had to learn what it meant to let go of trying to control my emotions in order to come to peace with my own fear.
I didn’t start crying during sappy commercials, but I did become very conscious of what I was feeling. When I stopped pushing down my fear and honored it, its power over me disappeared. When I spoke to other combat veterans and martial artists around the world, I discovered they all had come to similar realizations for themselves. Emotions like fear weren’t things to be ignored or avoided – they could be used as fuel to ignite a passionate life.
More than anything, allowing my fear to exist without the need to change it gave me freedom. The freedom to be open to life – whether what I was experiencing was bringing me joy or fear. With that freedom I realized that I didn’t have to hide from my emotions anymore.
I could approach that woman I’d always wanted to talk to.
I could tell my family how much they really meant to me.
I could look in the mirror and tell the man there how grateful I was to know him.
These days, when I remember the sound that took a man’s life, I’m reminded of how that sound also taught me what it was to live.
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