A Stranger in a Strange Land

Recently for work I attended a Veteran Farmers’ Conference in Boone, NC. I have long since realized that Asheville is a strange land, but Boone is not far behind. I will say something for the veterans in attendance–you could tell they had been trained extensively in the practice of self-control. Me, not so much. The only thing stopping me, a non-veteran, from storming the stage and wresting away the microphone–to put all of us out of our misery–was the fear that I would lose a fight to a pacifist. 

In the speaker’s defense, I don’t think she had the self-awareness to realize how poorly the presentation was coming off. The veterans were too polite. They just sat there, eyes diverted, hoping it would end soon. Eventually, she did end her hour-long treatise, which was supposed to be about improving farmers’ mental health, a worthy topic, given suicide and depression among farmers, especially veteran farmers, are high compared to other vocations.

But the talk meandered from Australia where the young woman, who was a new age psychological practitioner of some sort, spent time learning from the Aborigines, to Europe where she took a pilgrimage to Copenhagen, to Connecticut where she spent years at Yale studying mental health treatment, focusing on eastern philosophies. She said we needed to “decolonize” our mental health system and avoid “toxic masculinity” and live in tune with our “chakras” and that most mental health ailments arise from imbalances in gut health, for which she had a medicinal herb that could help with every possible affliction. She talked about how she was a vegetarian for ten-years, until her body revolted, at which point she suddenly realized that eating meat “aligned spiritually” with her development as a human being. At the end, she asked if anyone had questions, and if they did, nobody dared ask one for fear of prolonging our suffering. For me, the only question left unasked was how she could afford to travel the world and then attend Yale.

But while she was speaking, I was also thinking about the dichotomy playing out. Here was a young woman, white, likely of considerable privilege and obviously highly educated, bemoaning the very privilege from which she has benefited. I suspect many of these veterans she was talking to had come from much humbler backgrounds and would have probably loved to trade places with her–at least in the sense that when they had traveled the world, they risked being shot at or blown up. I talked to one young man who had spent four years as an infantryman in the Army, much of it in Afghanistan. He didn’t get into details but said he still struggles with PTSD from an ambush on his unit. He said that he was one of the lucky ones. 

Lucky, I guess, is a relative term. I think we’re all lucky to live in the United States, where men and women sacrifice their own lives, limbs, and mental health, so the rest of us can tune up our chakras and work on our development as human beings. The young woman meant well and had the audience been a typical Boone hipster audience, the presentation likely would have been received with much adulation. I guess what has struck me so much on my sojourns in the Asheville and Boone areas is the irony of it all, that the hipsters who are so vociferously pushing diversity and inclusion are mostly a non-diverse group, white and privileged, and that a woman lamenting toxic masculinity to a room full of veterans is free to do so because many of her listeners had been trained to exhibit behaviors associated with toxic masculinity, not only for their own survival on the battlefield, but for our survival as a free and democratic nation.

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Thank you, Veterans!

12 thoughts on “A Stranger in a Strange Land

    1. Hey, Kensho, hope you are doing well! So apparently she got the gig because she was dating one of the locally famous hipster farmers and she was supposed to be a mental health expert. Lord help us.

      1. Thanks, you too! Glad to read your posts again. It was better when the hipsters were too cool for farming! I think they follow the tech—so now that full-spectrum surveillance and Smart everything is hitting us rural folk, this is our ‘reward’. Lord help us indeed, and quick!

  1. Wow! I wonder who’s idea it was to select the young woman as a speaker! From what I’ve read, it’s apparent our veterans are not receiving the support many need and deserve. What a wasted opportunity! It’s clear from your post that the disconnect between her new age approach and the lives of her audience could not have been more vast. To share her “experience,” which was completely unrelated to that of the audience, sounds like an exercise in self-indulgence. If only the organizers had given a thought to their audience and found someone to whom they could possibly relate and maybe come away with some small kernal of truth. My wild guesses as to how this happened are she was either someone’s daughter or granddaughter, or the budget was limited and she came cheap.

    Either way, I find it hard to completely absolve her of responsibility. Even lacking any related background, if she had done a little research, I’m sure she could have found and offered something more helpful than what sounds like a long-winded account of “finding her bliss,” a topic I find hard to stomach in any situation. In this case, it is especially offensive because, as you rightly point out, so many veterans come from a background where they were/are too busy trying to feed and clothe themselves and possibly their families to worry about what it means to be self-actualized.

    On the other hand, as a feminist, I do believe in the concept of “toxic masculinity” in the sense that our younger generation is not necessarily being taught lessons that will help them to function in a society where being different from one another does not preclude being equal. But that is a topic for another day and certainly not one that a privileged young woman has the right or background to discuss with veterans (or anyone really). I’m a lot older than her, and I would never presume to have the smallest understanding of what most veterans have lived through. When the one combat veteran I know speaks, I just listen because I know he has seen and done things far beyond my ken. Some of his stories make me cringe for a variety of reasons, but I was not there. How can I possibly know how I would have reacted to the situations he found himself in, if I’d have even managed to survive?

    There are some situations in life where surviving means doing things you never thought you’d ever do. I count myself extremely lucky to not have ever been in such a spot. And I know it’s possible — even likely — that such luck is related more to what our veterans have done than anything I have.

    What a shame they couldn’t have provided a speaker that could offer something helpful or at least entertaining! I hope you all at least got a good meal out of the deal and sorry for my blathering on.

    1. You were very close in your guess. So the conference was funded through a grant. Apparently, the environmental studies department at the major university in Boone received the grant to help farmers learn about sustainable farming practices. The major university, and larger Boone area, is now a major enclave for hipsters. Apparently, she was dating one of the locally famous hipster farmers who specializes in growing medicinal herbs and fooling people into paying outrageous prices for them, who apparently is the hero of the environmental studies professor who received the grant.

      Sadly, the whole experience felt like an episode of Portlandia, only it was real.

  2. I can picture in my mind the veterans of various ages, listening politely with a blend of amusement and bewilderment, wondering what on earth this has to do with Veterans’ Day or what she’s even talking about. When selecting a keynote speaker for any event geared toward veterans—whatever the topic—it behooves the organizers to select someone who has military experience, or extensive background working closely with military types. Even if it’s not an utter new-age disaster like this event was, there will be too much a gulf in mentality and shared experiences for the speaker to say anything meaningful to veterans.

    1. Yes, the picture in your mind is accurate. I can’t imagine a bigger gulf in the shared experience than that of the speaker and veterans. Thankfully, there were other sessions where actual veterans who were farmers talked and those were really insightful and practical. Thanks, Steven, for your service–hope yall are doing well!

  3. No kidding. You absolutely out did yourself with this one. I have long admired you as a writer and enjoyed your work, but this one really is a gem among gems.

    On a lighter note, the reason you didn’t connect with what she was saying is possibly because your chakra is off. You may want to take some of her herb pills to align it with the cosmic flow. I am sure she won’t charge you an arm and a leg.

  4. What’s sad is the audience could have used good, practical info about positive mental health practices for an occupation that is often isolating and stressful, and also quite unique. Definitely the wrong speaker. Though I suppose those herbs could be a cash crop…

    1. Yes, I agree–definitely a worthy topic but a bad choice for speaker. Apparently, dandelion is even valuable for its medicinal purposes, so maybe the money is in dandelions😉

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