This week, we are thinking about starting again. New beginnings, second acts – these are enduring themes at HorseBack. But we have lately realised they are the kind of things that sound delightful on paper, yet can be really gnarly and tough in action.
Starting again, which is what our veterans have to do, may be a new opportunity, but it often doesn’t feel like one. The skills that members of the armed forces learn are enduring and can be applied to pretty much anything in life or work. These are discipline, communication, working as a team, having an attitude that anything can be done and a belief any problem can be solved. But the situation, the context, is wildly different. It’s a long way from Helmand Province to an office in Bracknell. It’s an even longer way from being surrounded by a band of brothers and sisters to finding yourself alone, with a gammy leg or a boatload of mental trauma, and having to figure out how to invent your own second act.
We’ve been thinking about this in a very personal context, because many of the HorseBack team have been learning new things during the lockdown. Emma is on a coaching course, so that she can take her teaching skills to another level. Jay challenged himself to learn the guitar. (There’s also been a lot of climbing hills.) The Facebook Operative is on a crash course in spreadsheets and the intricacies of social media, as is Ian, our Twitter supremo. Jock invented an entire online course for NHS workers from scratch. Duggie decided to teach himself to walk a hundred kilometres.
We’d love to say that we took all the principles we’ve gathered over ten years of HorseBack work, applied them seamlessly to our new challenges, and galloped ahead with the wind in our hair. We didn’t. Starting again often felt horrible. We had all the human emotions – frustration, exhaustion, fed upness. Some of us even felt shame, that wicked black dog that so easily snaps at human heels, because there was something we just couldn’t get. Some of us felt furious that we couldn’t simply make everything function at full strength through a sheer act of will.
We had to be humble, and keep going back to the start, and practise and practise and practise until we grew more competent, until things started to fall into place.
On our Facebook and our Instagram and our Twitter, we love putting up inspirational quotes and words of wisdom. We’ve done this a lot during lockdown, because we wanted to give our readers encouragement and hope in the dark days of the pandemic. But the problem with these little nuggets of inspiration is that sometimes they read so easily but they are so hard to put into action.
A person might know that starting again is a giddy moment of opportunity. That’s what the higher mind says. The gut says: I can’t; it’s too hard; I feel stupid and hopeless. Which of those two voices is easier to believe? It’s always the negative one. And at that stage, all the inspirational quotes in the world feel like mere mockery. It might be all right for the damn Stoics, says the internal, despairing voice, but it’s not working for me.
And this is where the incredible quality that is empathy comes in. Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is the trait that banishes shame, that stops isolation in its tracks, that fosters connection. It is where someone says, ‘You are not alone, because I know what this is like. I have been there too.’
So, for all our own personal battles over the long lockdown months, we are glad that we’ve set ourselves complex challenges. They reminded us what it’s like when we don’t quite know what we are doing. They took us out of our comfort zone and made us admit weakness and ask for help.
We’ll take all that emotional experience and use it to make our courses better and deeper, when the veterans return to us. We’ll have a shiny new tool in our toolbox. And we can pass that on, to the people we help.
It’s the classic silver lining. You can’t banish the clouds; they come into every life. But you can choose the story you tell yourself about them. We choose the silver lining story, because we find it useful, and everything at HorseBack is about being useful. So we take a deep breath, and forge on, and find new knowledge in our new beginnings.
It’s not straightforward, but we can do it. And those of you who have been with us for a long time know that we are all about what can be done, rather than what can’t.