August 10, 2020

Death Letter, part three: A caged animal in an invisible cage


We continue our reflections on David W. Peters’ memoir of his experiences as a military and hospital chaplain called, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War. Peters served as a battalion chaplain in Fort Hood, Texas from 2004-2007, which included a deployment to Iraq in 2006. After Iraq he also served as a chaplain clinician in the amputee, orthopedic, neuroscience, and psychological wards at Walter Reed Hospital.

After his deployment and subsequent divorce, David Peters entered a season of drinking, promiscuity, depression, and loss of faith. I am finding these chapters hard to read because they scare me. This is genuine existential wilderness. Peters lost virtually all landmarks and took paths that were not only dead ends, he knew they were dead ends and took them anyway. I don’t need to recount the details. The downhill slide covers territory that is well-traveled and familiar. It is the thoughts he records as he tumbles down the hill that most interest me. I simply quote some of them today.

. . . I am a man obsessed with my ex, and I still hope for the day when she will call and say that she wants to be married to me again. I am a man on a mission to hurt someone as bad as I have been hurt. I am doing everything in my power to protect my fragile psyche and it is working. It’s like I am immune to heartache. But I am enjoying this immunity too much. No one can hurt me like my wife hurt me . This is one thing I can be sure of in this uncertain world. I have paradise in my reach, but it is a feckless heaven. It is empty without her.

. . . Even though I’ve been back from Iraq for over two years, I am still there. I am alive there. I am depressed there. I am myself there. I am scared there. There is always a golden day before me when I will see my family again . Now there is nothing hopeful on the horizon. There is no magic day where all manner of things will be well. It is just an endless succession of seconds that will one day stop.

. . . We are all staying at a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. I am told it is a freshwater lake that sits atop another layer of saltwater, way down deep. This fascinates me, the salt below the fresh. The pressure of the massive amount of fresh water pushing down on the saltwater, holding it in its place. There are things I cannot know. All I know is that deep down , there is a salty darkness inside of me that is starting to mix with the fresh water on the surface. I have kept it down all my life and now the war has taken too much of the fresh and left me with too much of the bitter. I keep it down with my jokes, my smiles, and “I was only there for a year.” But I can feel it coming up. I have touched the rage that lies beneath the thin veneer of what we call civilization . I know what is down below, so I turn from the lake and go to bed.

. . . I remember when I had been divorced for only a few weeks and I went with my girlfriend to her church. It was a new conservative Presbyterian church in a hip neighborhood in Wilmington. No one owns cars here. It is time for the confession of sin, and I cannot say it. I cannot tell God that I have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed. I cannot be sorry and truly repentant. I can only think, I have nothing to confess. But you, Oh God, you have a few things to confess to me.

. . . This is the only way to protect my frail psyche. This is all I can do. I was hurt so bad that I am now immune from feeling any hurt. I am angry at women. How could my ex-wife have left me for that motherfucker? My anger doesn’t make sense anymore and I am afraid. I am afraid of being angry forever.

. . . I know I have problems. I know I weep uncontrollably sometimes. I have a restlessness inside me that all the running and sit-ups in the world cannot quell. I am a caged animal in an invisible cage. Every morning in the Psych Ward at Walter Reed the Charge Nurse goes around the room and asks everyone to state their name and their mood. Staff members, the sane ones, are supposed to state their name and their occupational specialty. The patients say, “Hi, I’m Jon and I’m feeling . . . mixed emotions today.” It helps that they have a laminated paper with a list of emotions on it. Above each word is a little round face that seeks to artistically capture the feeling. Some are better than others. Each staff member says, “Hi, I’m Dr. Smith, and I’m your attending physician.” I say, “Hi, I’m David, your chaplain , and I’m feeling anxiety and hope today.” Most days I feel like there is a thin line between the patients and me. I know that the feelings that I feel, if voiced, could land me in this place. I would stay for a few weeks and be medically retired from the Army. I wouldn’t have to worry about financial matters anymore. I could just be “troubled” and “dark.” I turn my head away from this bittersweet cup every time it presents itself. I want to be whole. I want to be okay. I want to be normal, even though I know I never will.

This is the voice in the wilderness.

Listen. It is all around us.

And how can the one who speaks thus find hope?

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

• Psalm 88:3-7


  1. How do we make ourselves people to whom such pain can be spoken? How do we let others know? How do we make our churches places where such pain can be spoken?

  2. I read the book and it shook me up.

    I saw that when I man is shaken up like this life comes unravelled.

    Yesterday I sat with a friend who is divorced and recounted the book to him. His wife was unfaithful, they divorced and he quickly met and married another and then divorced. After that a series of affairs. Something broke, he was devastated. He discovered there was a meeting to discuss his case at church – could they let him continue on in membership? He left.

    He challenged me ‘Try for one day imagining best you can that your wife is unfaithful to you. Sit in it’ This is what I go through continually. Pain and rejection

    And I thought that for a man this is the most disintegrative experience you can go through. He would say death of a spouse is easier.

  3. “Weep with those who weep; mourn with those who mourn.” I do not know what such a thing would look like. But we, as the church, desperately need to do it.

    My own divorce was relatively amicable; my wife is a lesbian, and I am not female, end of story. Except it’s not; the grieving has gone on for years. I could not stand being around talk of love and families and togetherness; my task is to forget love, at least for that one person. To find a way to live alone. Where one is gathered together, I was told, God is not present. Two or three, yes. But never one.

    I found a grief support group online, and I sit with people who’ve lost loved ones to death, and they are my tribe. No one in my church could deal. With death, at least, the church has ways of coping, for a while. Though when the funeral is over and the casserole dishes are washed and returned, who will sit with the bereaved then? For the years it takes until they can go a week or two between really bad days. They’re never healed; it never ends; the loved one is still dead. But it does get better.

    Or maybe it was me, knowing I was making poor choices and doing them anyway because it was the only way to go.

    • Richard
      I’m sorry for your pain and your loss
      I pray that the church would learn to weep with those who weep as well.
      much grace and love to you

    • Richard, I add my voice to Heather’s comment. May you find peace.

  4. I downloaded the book and read it on Kindle after reading the first post in this series. I found myself thinking several times, “Too much information,” and was relieved when I got to the Epilogue and found the darkness was lifting a bit.

    Then I realised that David Peters’ experience has some distinct similarities with the life of that greater David who, with all his faults, was described as a man after God’s own heart. I’m sure the challenge to my smugness and the nice respectable ‘Christian’ attitudes assimilated when I grew up is a good thing, but it’s not comfortable…

  5. You got it right, CM. The voice of this darkness is all around. It’s not just those who have seen war who experience it; there are traumas in other experiences that lead to the same place, the same anger and fear and lostness, the same choosing of things that can only make matters worse, the same inability to repent or confess, the same anger at God, the same temptation to give oneself over to the darkness and be done with it. And your question is the only question: where is hope to be found? Where is hope to be found?

  6. It’s interesting that there are so few comments on such a powerful and raw post. Could it be that the church has a hard time answering the cry of Psalm 88? I’m not casting stones–it and those lives that it epitomizes are difficult for us–difficult for me–to square with western Christianity and its gospel of life transformation and prosperity (not necessarily material prosperity but spiritual–the onward and upward path to sanctification). Like Chaplain Mike, it’s hard for me to read something so painful because it’s true. I don’t have a satisfying answer to David Peters’ pain–or my own but I know it is real, even for believers.

    • There are some things, some experiences, that are completely negative, that cannot be redeemed, about which nothing good can be said and with which nothing good can be done, in which God can only be unknown as absence, and of which those with wisdom are reticent to speak. I don’t really care if that squares with anyone’s theology; there are those whose experiences vouch for its truth, and who know what they know directly and immediately in a way which no philosophy or theology can gainsay.

      • I agree. My point is that in the American church this is a mostly foreign concept–“God will never allow anything to happen to you that He doesn’t give you the strength to endure” or “God is using this to strengthen you” and such. We often refuse to face what you have so eloquently said and so cloth it in bromides and platitudes.

        • I think it is very difficult to look into someones personal relationships and try to make judgments. Obviously he’s hurting, but without context that is all we have.

  7. I get it. I live there. I don’t know that there is anything that can be said.

  8. What I’m about to say may sound beyond arrogant, and perhaps even triggering. But I hope that to the extent I’ve shared some of my story on this forum, I will be graced with a small measure of credibility for the following:

    I believe there is hope and healing for the worst of cases, for the tragedies and trauma that defy explanation and comfort.

    I play a small role on a ministry team at our church that welcomes people with stories as brutal as Mr. Peters.’ I’ve heard many similar phrases to “I want to be normal, even though I know I never will.” And time and time again that kind of person is visited with the presence of God, and given a sense of hope, peace, security, or love that was previously absent.

    I’m not saying “prayer changes things” or advocating for a religious quick-fix diagnosis or attempting to find good in the face of evil. I am saying that if you gather a small community of people who are willing to be with people in their worst moments, are quick to listen and slow to speak, have room in their theology to hear from the Spirit, and are committed to helping people find wholeness in Christ, slowly and over the long-haul… then there is an opportunity for some magic to happen.

    • Sean, you cannot always count on the desire for “normalcy” in those who have suffered so deeply. It’s often a weak and fragile bird, and easy prey for the ” rage that lies beneath the thin veneer of what we call civilization.” One may come to question whether there is a real normalcy to return to, or it’s just an illusion of those who have not been exposed to the rage within themselves. There is a kind of knowledge in such suffering that is not entirely false, despite its dysfunctional origins and affect.

    • Sean, what you are describing is what I have seen in the 12-Step programs, and it is truly healing and good. But it takes time, and certainly doesn’t work for everyone.

      For me, the 12-Step programs (mine is Al-Anon, and before that, Adult Children of Alcoholics) are “that small community of people who are willing to be with people in their worst moments, are quick to listen and slow to speak, have room in their theology to hear from the Spirit, and are committed to helping people find wholeness, slowly and over the long-haul.”

      Not necessarily “wholeness in Christ.” People are not encouraged to “preach” or talk about a particular religion — just about “a power greater than yourself,” which could be God or the group itself or — who knows — a tree or a doorknob, if that’s what you have to start with. So very many people in the programs come from a background of an abusive, angry God who’s just waiting to punish you — they absolutely are not ready to hear someone preach to them.

      Now, after some years, many of those people end up going back to their old churches with a healed and renewed spirit, because they’ve been introduced to a loving God. But not at the start, for sure.

      I think the key for healing is: you have to talk to someone who’s walked in your shoes. I would never think of daring to ask David Peters to tell me about his experiences; I don’t feel qualified or “worthy” to hear them, let alone offer comfort. But someone who’s been through the same fire he has — that’s the one who can help. That’s the one who needs to be there. I’m not sure a “normal” church person could help, except possibly to encourage a deeply wounded person like this to socialize — have a cup of coffee, bowl a few games, go to a movie — just keep the person’s nostrils above water for awhile without trying to dig deeper.

    • I was not citing “normalcy” as a motive or desired outcome. The similarity to that quote that I’ve heard many times over is in the “I’ll never…” part. The finality of hopelessness, essentially. I believe this is the aspect of a person’s trauma that God most wants to address, and often does in these special moments with the “sense of peace, hope, security, or love” that I mentioned.

    • Sean, I have no wish to cast doubt on the fact that remarkable, even miraculous, healing sometimes does occur in some cases. But it does not occur in all cases, even in those where a powerful yearning for healing is present; for those for whom healing does not occur, there is only the wrestling in darkness, and the sometimes very obscure and vague hope that they will endure longer than their affliction. This post is about them; there are many of them, far more than the resources of the Church could ever make provision for. I’ve been one of them, and I’ve known others.

  9. “I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.”

    Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

  10. what is ‘normal’ when a man give his strength to a war zone for a year and then gets his heart shredded and handed to him when he gets home?

    I think his ‘reaction’ was, if I dare say it, more appropriate to his situation than not . . . maybe we expect too much of our warriors and when they come home, we can’t understand why some of them fold up when the pressure is over, but in THIS case, I do get why this man had few reserves left to deal with the emotional hell his wife handed to him on his return from duty

    when someone’s injuries are this raw, I suspect they are not to be blamed for reacting in ways that ought to be examined in the light of his total emotional exhaustion . . . his injuries are real, and he hurts, and if nothing morewe can stand witness to his pain out of respect for his devoted ministry to our soldiers in the field

  11. I read this in two sittings. It needed to be read as an outpouring, a confession if you like.
    I’m British. I’ve been a Prison Chaplain for nine years and there is nothing you can speak to this pain and numbness.
    As Henri Nouwen puts it, you sit with someone in the dark. I’ve been in the dark & raw and at the same time sat with people who are in places that cannot be reached. How does that work?
    I don’t know but I leave that mystery to God. And all dogmas, doctrines and structures fall away in the presence of the filthiness of pain. Light comes in chinks and God is often to be felt as absent. But we are here and we can do the work of caring and it’s not done by minimising the ugliness of grief and pain.
    His book was hard to read and I had quite visceral reactions to it but the thing that hurtled towards me was that he still listened to the stories. And perhaps a better listener than the pastor with the ever ready bible quotation.
    I’m looking forward to Life Letter.

    • another Mary says

      Thank you for your comment. It pretty much sums up what I want to take away from this book

    • another Mary says

      Thank you for your comments. They sum up what I am hoping to take away from this book. I too pray for his healing and comfort.

  12. Senecagriggs yahoo says

    Then there are the REAL VICTIMS, such as people who voluntarily attended a church once or twice a week for a number of years that didn’t treat them well. (sarcastically)
    I hate this culture where EVERYBODY is a victim.
    Thanks to the internet you too can be a victim. sigh

  13. Even though I have never been in a war, I still relate to Peters’ reference to the Sea of Galilee with the fresh water sitting atop the salt water and keeping it in place. Like Peters, I see my own soul as a freshwater lake sitting atop a layer of poisonously salty water, with the massive pressure of the fresh water holding the salt water beneath in place. Yet sometimes the salt water leeches out and poisons my relations with other people, in ways I do not understand and am not even aware of. (Not that I would want to know or to understand. The truth hurts sometimes, and this truth, I fear, would hurt too much.) I know what is down below, and I know the effect it can have on other people if it gets out of me. For this reason I sometimes feel it is my duty to withdraw from community and engagement with others, in order to protect those I care about the most from the darkness I know I carry around inside me. Yet at the same time, I want to be engaged, I want to be involved in relationship with other people, and I want, if possible, to be accepted and valued as I am, even with the darkness I know I carry around inside me. This is the battle I fight.