When I think back to times and places that were difficult, they usually seem not as bad as when I was there. There is a reason for this, and it’s called Fading Affect Bias. But first, a memory.
We were deployed in Baghdad and in the midst of it. 18-hour days of grind. I’d beat the sun up and stumble over to the secure room we set up to access highly classified material. The coffee wasn’t great, but if Folgers was good enough for grandad, it was good enough for me.
We’d push pixels, people, and ourselves on that deployment. It was hard. I also knew I was pushing myself pretty hard. Too hard, in hindsight. Then one day, a buddy on the team looked at me and said, “Hey, I gotta tell you, you have to stop being so negative.”
He was a friend, and I love him for having the courage to snap me back to reality.
There was a lot wrong, like the hole in the roof from a rocket and the persecution happening all around us. And the Army, which comes with lots to criticize - bureaucracy, red tape, bad food, low pay, IEDs, and laziness. Some of that, particularly the last one, would be a reason to get out several years later.
Almost every day, I miss it. I miss the dust in your nose, the adrenaline at the gate, and unknown corners - real and metaphorical. I miss the new cultures, the lessons, and the flatbread with all the fixings from a little window in Sulamaniyah.
I miss the places few have been and the wide-eyed “thank you” when you change someone’s life with something the Department of Defense marked for the rubbage bin. Not to mention fierce friendship, the ‘embrace the suck’ attitude, and the ‘just don’t quit’ mantras.
I’ve been curious why I remember it more fondly than when I was there. It turns out there is a psychological reason, and it’s called Fading Affect Bias (FAB).
With Fading Affect Bias, negative emotions associated with an event tend to fade faster than positive ones. This fading can start as soon as the same day. When something terrible happens, or I make a mistake, I drag it around for a while. Over time, it fades.
It won’t all fade and often comes back when we don’t want it. At night lying there in the dark, a smell that instantly transports you or any of 1,000 other triggers.
Fifteen years later, I remember vividly that moment riding in that grey SUV with the gold stripe down the side. My buddy looked over at me and said, “Dude, stop.”
What I was complaining about didn’t matter. Were there frustrating things? Yes. Did I think command could do more? Yes. Did I think some guys weren’t pulling their weight? Unequivocally.
Rarely does complaining make it better. By complaining, we are complicit.
Not only do I shake my head at the things that frustrated me due to their pettiness, but frankly, I’m embarrassed. I’m in the middle of a book by one of my favorite writers, and he’s sharing tales of WWI. The trenches, the starvation, and wave after wave of men walking into machine gun fire. Now there’s a reason to complain.
There I was with a chow hall, a mostly hot shower, and coffee each morning. Yet, I dared to complain. People were barely making it a few hundred meters away, and I had the US Government’s full force to ensure I had what I needed. And my family was at home, safe. Yet, I complained.
Note to Self
We will lose things, friends, and dreams. Complaining rarely makes it better. Often, it makes it worse.
Usually, there are worse things happening to better people.
When you find yourself starting to see all that is wrong, stop and flip it over. There’s likely more good than your lens is letting you see. Clean it.
I’m grateful for the fade, but more importantly, I’m grateful for friends that call me out. I’m also grateful that it doesn’t all fade. There are too many lessons and moments I don’t want to lose, including this one.
Take care, friends.