What Will You Give Yourself Permission To Do?

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Blog written by: Robert Walls

I was very excited about the chance to go to storytelling camp. A chance to see old friends, and a chance to meet new ones.

Leading up to camp I started getting very nervous, I started to realize…wait, this is happening. Several things were going through my mind, first I would have to get on an airplane. I have flown once since leaving Iraq a decade ago, so that in itself was enough for me to stress about. However, the instant I landed, another realization kicked in, I wasn’t just out of my comfort zone, I was states away, about to talk to a lot of people I had never met; yet I am going to tell them some of my deepest struggles?!

I have told my story many of times, each time with a little more detail, but I knew this one was going to be different, I knew I couldn’t put on a façade of comedy, I couldn’t blame it on alcohol, the only thing I could do was be me, and hope that was enough.

I was pretty nervous on the first day at the camp. We were all in a single room, which I now refer to as the storytelling room. One of the first things we were asked to do was to write on a small notecard and give ourselves permission to do something at this camp. This was odd to me, but for the sake of the exercise I decided to give it a try. I gave myself permission not to hold anything back, embrace everything that is storytelling camp and everything that is Team RWB. Didn’t seem like a big deal at first. I volunteered to read aloud what I wrote, but then it dawned on me. Wait, don’t hold anything back? Embrace everything and fully participate? Leave myself open and vulnerable? This just wasn’t me, this just wasn’t going to work.

Later that day I decided to let the comedy start doing its “magic”. I mean, I have held the emotional wall up for so long what was another weekend, right? So that evening I kind of just joked around with people and decided that even though I gave myself permission, it didn’t mean I had to actually do it.

Day two came around and we started writing a few sentences that would be in our story. I was like, “Alright, that is fine, I can jot a few things down.” But then something happened, I actually started being vulnerable, but this was only on paper, so it didn’t really count, right? At least that is what I told myself. I read my sentences multiple times and then we were asked to share in groups. No big deal, they knew me as a comedian, I could just wing it. However, once I sat down in our group, and looked at their faces I knew there was no way I could “wing it”. I had no choice. I had to be genuine. I had to be authentic. So I was. I told my one sentence like I had been rehearsing for a play; but what I didn’t count on is what I actually wrote, how vulnerable it really made me, how I actually put myself out there. Then something amazing happened, in return I no longer felt alone. Although it was just a sentence, it was me. The real me.

The rest of the second day I actively participated, listened intently as a few of our leaders showed their vulnerability and told us their stories, I listened as everyone hugged and thanked them for everything they were doing, I listened as opinions clashed over the ways stories should be told, and then, then I started to listen to my little notecard, my permission slip, the permission slip that told me that I could listen to me. Listen to me? Why would I do that? This is what I have been pushing away for so long, could I actually face myself?

That night I didn’t sleep very well, you see… the next day we were going to tell our stories. I have done this before, I knew what type of emotional toll this was about to take, and I knew, for the first time I had to truly be me. I had to say what I was feeling, I couldn’t just hide behind my wall of comedy or dull the emotions. Maybe even worse, I had to listen. Not just to my story, but the stories of those who I now consider family. Imagine 30 of your family members lining up and telling you about the worst moments in their life. This was not going to be an easy day. I knew I was going to leave Sunday, heartbroken, confused, and worst of all, alone.

Sunday came and I decided to tell my story first. I needed to get it over with. I knew if I didn’t go first, I might not do it at all. I also knew that by getting up there and being vulnerable, it may just start what Sarah Roberts calls the ripple effect, it may just allow us to be us. I mean if the “comedian” with the wall around him can tell his story, then why can’t I?

The time was now, I went up front, took down my wall and told one of my defining stories, my story of why I got involved with Team RWB. A story of struggles, pain, loss, and despair. I am not sure what I expected when I was done. Judgement, stares, disdain even? But instead I received love, support, and sadness that those things had happened in my life. Then something amazing happened. The ripples started forming, person after person started going up front, started being vulnerable, started telling stories that they have held in for so long. All of a sudden, I wasn’t alone, I didn’t need a wall. As it turns out, all I needed was a family.

I have an awesome wife and two wonderful children, but that is not the family I speak of. The family I found, the family I needed was there all along. I just had to open my eyes and see that it wasn’t about me, it was about us.

When we started camp they told us to write one true sentence about ourselves. Wow, I thought, one true thing? How can I pick just one thing? What would that one thing be? Several days after camp I finally figured out my one true sentence. I am selfish.

You see, when we came back from camp there was a slap of reality. There was this feeling that we were no longer in the company of our family. We now had to go back to the real world, and face our everyday problems, a real world that is unforgiving. A real world that you are just not ready to embrace yet, not because you are scared, but you are emotionally drained. You have this sense of pride that you are now starting to take control of your story, but that is still a hard reality. That is when I realized my truth, my truth that I am selfish.

I missed my new family, I missed what we had together, I missed being me. However, I realized it didn’t have to be that way. So, I started randomly sending messages to people from camp, telling them they are awesome, telling them I missed them, telling them to keep fighting the fight. That is when I knew I was selfish, that is when I realized that I wanted to make everyone happy. By making others happy, in return I found my happiness. So I just keep on trying to help others find their happiness, give them that smile they need in the middle of the day, so in return I could have mine. However, once I found my happiness I realized I wasn’t away from my family at all, in reality my family has always been here, all 113,000 of them. Anywhere I want to go my family is there. It may not be the same ones I laughed, learned, and loved with over the past weekend, but they are still my family. Even better I get to share my experiences with my team, with other Eagles across the country. All of a sudden I have the tools to be a better me, and in return the ability to better help others.

You may have noticed I used common words to describe people, I didn’t say veteran or civilian, I said person, people, humans, Eagles – because that is what we all are. You see, it turns out emotions aren’t as picky as some of us have always believed them to be. They don’t affect you one way because you are a veteran, and another because you are a civilian. They are just as cruel, real, and as harsh to all of us. Our experiences may be different, but our emotions are not. Team Red, White and Blue may be made up of veterans and civilians, but more importantly it is made up of people. People who all have an emotional connection to each other whether we know it or not. We just need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and see each other as people, not as categories. We are all the same, different experiences in life doesn’t make you different, it makes you human. We are all vulnerable, we just have to give ourselves permission. So my question to you is, what will you give yourself permission to do?

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