Editor’s Introduction: Our first guest author, “Just Roger,” offers us a memoir of military training that shows a sliver of Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration not as a textbook abstraction, but as he lived it. His reflections on his experience led him to wonder: is it possible to create an environment that intentionally cranks up person’s excitability, even if they weren’t overexcitable to begin with? If you’re not yet familiar with the TPD’s levels of development, you may can get some background on them here.
So I read every post about TPD on this blog, and I thought, “Hey! That reminds me of the first time I entered the Gas Chamber!”
I think any good theory should be like a pair of 3D movie glasses: when you look through the theory’s “lenses,” certain things should leap out at you. Bad theories act like rose-colored glasses or beer goggles: they color your perceptions or make you see things that aren’t there.
My own “TPD Glasses” are extremely rudimentary. Like any psychological theory, it has the nature factor of a person’s unique heredity. (Technically, I’m told, OEs are just one part of our genetic endowment; Dabrowski would have included those as well as other things in the first factor.) There’s also the nurture factor of the person’s environment. Dabrowski added to that a “third factor”—the most important one in my opinion—which is essentially self-motivation and self-direction. Conflict and pain among these three factors causes “positive disintegration” which can result in personality growth.
The Gas Chamber
Relax! This one causes no permanent damage. It’s called the “Gas Chamber” by military recruits who have a gallows sense of humor.
It’s more formally known as the CS gas training evolution, and every military recruit goes through it. My turn was in 1983, and it’s still a standard training exercise.
By the way, I should explain there are several varieties of tear gas, and all of them cause tears. OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) pepper spray is used in those little self-defense canisters that stream liquid into the faces of protesters and muggers. You can be desensitized to OC pepper spray; one of my buddies became so desensitized to it that he liked to give himself a little spray of it right before they served beans for lunch or dinner because he said it made the food taste better.
The Gas Chamber uses CS (Chlorobenzylidenemalonotrile) gas. It’s what you see in the movies that comes out of a grenade to fill the room in whitish smoke. (It’s actually colorless.) You can’t be desensitized to CS gas. Every time feels like the first time, with the full physical effects, but less mental panic.
You can see “funny” videos of recruits in the Gas Chamber on YouTube. It’s not funny at all to the recruits, but it is valuable. Basically, they learn how to get a tight seal and properly use their gas masks before filing as a team into a concrete blockhouse filled with tear gas. (They are under close supervision, with safety observers and medics standing by.) The trainers can quickly tell who used their gas masks correctly. Those who failed get to try the whole exercise again, and those who succeeded learn to trust their mask.
After that, the recruits are ordered to take off their gas masks to sing a song like the National Anthem or to recite their “11 General Orders of a Sentry.” Recruits suspected of lip-syncing get to stay in longer and also get to redo the entire exercise with the next group. Once the trainers are assured that every recruit has a very personal memory of the effects of tear gas, they are taken outside to flush their eyes and clear their noses and throats.
It’s very effective training. In the future, when the command Don gas masks goes out, every service member’s personal memory of the gas chamber ensures they will quickly and effectively do so.
Looking through my TPD Glasses, could Gas Chamber training effectively be an example of induced OEs and internal dynamisms, intended to propel recruits from Level II to Level III?
Some experts on what’s often referred to as giftedness seem to think the gifted have lower thresholds to sense stimuli and are more responsive to those stimuli. The OEs of many gifted people are so extreme they seem to produce qualitative differences in their lives, not just quantitative ones.
I was officially labelled as Profoundly Gifted when I was 8 years old. An expert would say I have all 5 OEs. While that doesn’t make me an expert in anyone else’s giftedness or OEs, I do know that in the gas chamber, it makes no difference. Whether you are by nature overexcitable, underexcitable, or somewhere in between, the nurture of the gas chamber environment will induce a state of high excitability in everyone.
The worst part of the gas chamber is not the few minutes of painful shock at how much mucus the human head can produce. The worst part is the stress and anxiety before, during, and after the experience, including an mix of fear of pain, fear of external judgment, and fear of failing to live up to your own personal standards: Did I follow directions properly? Will I be considered a weak teammate if I didn’t? Is my gas mask defective? If my gas mask works right and if I got a tight seal, will I be able to follow orders to sing or to recite while knowing it’s going to hurt? Am I strong enough to endure? Will I at least do as well as the others in my team? Will I try to cheat? If I don’t cheat, will the trainers think I am lip-syncing and make me do it again? Will the tear gas reveal some unknown medical condition that gets me kicked out of the military? How long will I have to stand there and endure? Can I stand there as long as the trainers think I should? Can I endure as long as everyone else does? Will I panic and try to run? How long will the effects last afterwards? Will I be able to recover as well as everyone else? Will I do as well as I hope? Will others laugh at however I might do?
Level II to Level III?
You will leave the chamber a changed man or woman. Your experience will disintegrate who you were and put you back together, hopefully in a positive way. (In military speak, you’ll get your “Sh-tuff Talking Papers.”)
It seems clear to me that no one manages to enter recruit training at TPD Level I. If they didn’t have any internal conflicts, I don’t believe they would seek to make such a drastic choice as military service. Of course, it’s possible some people seek to enter military service at Level I—for example, those who enlist because it is what their families have always done. And when the military was populated by draftees, I believe it would have included more Level I recruits who thought of it as their unquestioned duty as a citizen.
However, the military draft ended on January 27th, 1973, and our military now is an all-volunteer and much smaller force with greatly improved benefits and opportunities. That means the modern military can be much more selective. There is now an extensive process of personal interviews, background checks, physical examinations, and formalized written testing. When I went through that process in 1983, it was grueling; it is many times worse for modern recruits. In most cases, the training and preparation merely to become a recruit starts with their recruiters and lasts for months before they ever get to boot camp. And that’s why, in my humble opinion, a prospective recruit doesn’t even make it to the bus or plane to head to boot camp unless they have a strong desire to reintegrate at a higher level.
So I believe recruits enter boot camp at least at Level II of TPD, or Unilevel Disintegration, even if they weren’t there before. They haven’t had the opportunity to develop their own internal values for the military recruit environment, and they are all extremely anxious over satisfying authority figures and the pressures of their new teammates as well as the new demands placed on them to satisfy even the most basic biological needs.
Personally, I walked into the Gas Chamber at Level II. I felt the anxiety to satisfy my trainers, my teammates, and my biological needs, but I most strongly wanted to live up to my own personality ideal for what would be an acceptable performance. There were constant demands physically, mentally and emotionally—demands
that had no clear hierarchy, which is why I call them unilevel—and I was doing all I could to keep up with each one as they came flying at me in that new environment.
I’d like to say I walked out of the gas chamber at Level III.
I’d like to. I really can’t.
However, as this blog’s author pointed out, it takes a tremendous amount of mental and emotional energy to go from Level II to Level III. I think I first found the energy for my Level III military personality in the gas chamber. It was in the chamber that I first learned that, with my own individual OEs (first factor, or nature) and my own individual dynamisms (especially what Dabrowski called the third factor) in this new military environment (second factor, or nurture), I would have to decide on my own hierarchy of autonomous values simply because I could not even hope to be “perfect” on everything. (Trying to be “perfect” leads to a quick disintegration when you’re a new recruit.)
In the gas chamber, I could no longer try to just keep up with the others; I couldn’t even see them through my own tears. I could no longer do whatever the trainers told me to do; I think I only got through three of my “11 General Orders of a Sentry” before my throat was too filled with mucus to speak. Being incapacitated by OC gas did not make me either “tough” or “weak”; I was only trying to survive it like everyone else in there. I still wanted to shine in front of my trainers and teammates, but when the fight-or-flight reaction kicked in, I also wanted to tear off the trainers’ gas masks and simultaneously run outside before being given the order to leave. It was simultaneously the most alienating and team-building training I’d ever received up until then.
Once I recovered, I was just glad to have survived it without needing a medic, and I was glad I did well enough not to have to go through it again. Later that night, I also experienced the dynamism of astonishment with oneself, which Dabrowski (quoted on this blog) describes as an individual feeling “surprised with how they’re capable of behaving, motivating them to improve upon what is.”
I strongly believe that the seeds of my Level III military personality were planted in the gas chamber.
Dabrowski and Me
Frankly, I was surprised my TPD Glasses worked so well on my memory of the gas Chamber, so I did a bit more research into Dabrowski’s biography. I suspect that Dabrowski must’ve been quite familiar with the military, with first-hand experiences of war as a child in World War I. He spoke of being particularly influenced by witnessing the corpses on a battleground near his home as a child, and he was amazed that some of the dead soldiers seemed to be calm and accepting while others were horrified and frightened. He had to confront death to understand the brutality of war. During World War II, he had to disguise his facility as an Institute for Tuberculosis, but he was still imprisoned by the Nazis for several months for suspicions of being in the Polish underground. In short, Dabrowski observed firsthand both the lowest, most inhuman behavior and the highest human behavior among the military in both World Wars.
Is it a coincidence that TPD remind me of my own military experiences? Well, you decide.
Still, TPD is about the conflict, stressors, and individualized pain that causes a disintegration of personality and then re-integration, hopefully in more positive ways, with a more nuanced and complicated multilevel value system as an integral part of one’s values.
Sounds like a war to me. (And I’ve been in nine of those in my 23 years of military service, even though they’re now called “military operations.”)
About the Author: “Just Roger” was raised in a rural foster home with 14 other children, was officially labelled “profoundly gifted” at age 8 and—after flailing about most enjoyably and often hilariously for over two decades—enlisted in the US Navy to see the world. After a 23-year career in which he visited and/or lived in 187 countries and 34 of the United States, he retired as a highly decorated officer at age 47. He currently lives in a modest home in the woods with a profoundly gifted Border-Aussie rescue dog and enjoys being extremely boring.