Controlled Burns

Whether they realize it or not, everybody is built on core assumptions about themselves that lie at the base of their personality. Internal beliefs like “I’m intelligent,” “I’m more confident than most,” “I’m a valued friend,” etc, provide a stable foundation to stand on while exploring the unknown or approaching new situations, something certain one can return to if things get too chaotic. You can quite easily identify some of your own assumptions by thinking about what you’re confident in, or what skills you’re proud of. 

Having these core assumptions collapsed has big consequences. For one, it destabilizes whatever’s built on top of it, such as your sense of worth. Also, it deprives you of the confidence to face difficult situations or try new things–if you’re not even sure of what’s true about yourself, how can you try and sort through the rest of the world?

Going into Basic Military Training (BMT) at the beginning of last year, I remember how excited I was to start. I was pretty confident of my prospects in the army. I thought of myself as a likable person, a good communicator, and a capable leader–I always assumed I would be in the top 10% of the cohort that went to Officer Cadet School (OCS) after finishing BMT. 

Very soon after first stepping foot on Tekong Island though, I realised just how wrong I was. Everything I counted on to turn out well was just the opposite. I couldn’t make friends with anybody in the bunk, didn’t know how to talk to them, and could barely take care of myself, let alone lead anybody else. And just like that, three core assumptions about myself that I’d held for years, “I’m a likable person,” “I’m a good communicator,” and “I’m a capable leader,” came crashing down. It was impossible to believe in them anymore. 

It was a pretty heady cocktail of emotions that defined the bitter taste of the next six weeks. What made Tekong Island my personal hell wasn’t the training, the army discipline, or the homesickness–none of that could compare to how painful it was to have my internal world completely collapse. To explain my sudden inability to socialise with anybody, I tried and tried to find some reason, some way I was behaving differently from before, but I couldn’t find anything. It was almost as if someone had gone into the code of the world and changed a few lines here and there overnight, rendering me unable to connect to anybody, like an outdated application or an obsolete device. 

Every day, I stumbled through the training, trying my best not to get in trouble, and every night, I would think about the fresh evidence of my incompetence that was today, and wonder where it all went wrong. Was I brought up wrong? Maybe I was awkward and blur because I had been homeschooled all my life, sheltered from the real world, left unable to contend with the people who filled it, let alone the hyper-motivated alpha males competing for a spot in OCS. Maybe I’d been lied to about how likeable I was, how well I could communicate, and how much I could lead, all my life. 

A friend who ended up in the platoon next to mine, and thus witnessed my daily misadventures, remarked that I was “that guy.” Every platoon has a “that guy.” He means well, but always gets into trouble–I had the unwelcome distinction of being yelled at in front of the platoon by the platoon sergeant not once, but twice, and so well deserved the title of “that guy.” It was a reputation that stuck in memories so long, that months later, when I bumped into people who were from my BMT company, they could quote the exact words the PS yelled at me. 

It’s funny to think about now, but I hit rock bottom because of a picture on Instagram. It’s embarassing to admit, but I think it happens to people more often than they let on. I knew now I didn’t have a chance in hell to go to command school, and one night, while I was lying in my bunk looking at my phone, I scrolled past a photo of a friend who had just finished OCS. He was standing proudly on SAFTI’s fabled parade square, beaming as his parents pinned the gold bar epaulettes on his shoulders, his 9 month journey to commissioning as an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces finally over.

I remember gazing sadly, longingly at that photo. It wasn’t about the rank or the prestige. I just wanted to be competent, to be good enough to stand with the very best, to be everything I knew I wasn’t in BMT, but so badly wanted to be. As I quit the app and squeezed my eyes closed, it felt like I was closing the door on that dream, my dream, forever. It hurt, but I had accepted my fate. 

At the end of basic training, when we finished our graduation parade and boarded the ferry for the last ride out, our platoon commander addressed us for the final time. As he talked, I thought about how all the recruits respected and looked up to him, how much responsibility the army had entrusted him with, and how little I deserved to ever stand in his shoes. And I knew I would never have the chance to. As Tekong receded into the sunny blue waters behind us, I left behind a dream and some shattered core assumptions. I didn’t know what to believe about myself or my capabilities, but I knew, wherever I was posted to next, I could just try my best. I might not be likable, a communicator, or a leader, but I had raw effort, and if I could want it enough, maybe I’d improve, maybe I’d make something of myself. And I really wanted to. More than anything. 

The next year was a series of terrible struggles, but slowly, through each setback and stumble, I began to rebuild myself. In the new unit I was posted to after BMT, I suffered for weeks as I tried and failed to make friends. But after making adjustments to my behaviour, learning more about people I was initially quick to judge, and earning their trust, I eventually made a breakthrough and found my place in the platoon. For the first time in the army, I felt comfortable and at ease with the people around me. Maybe I could be likable after all. 

I kept on working, and after a surprise transfer to SCS, continued trying to improve. Although I thought of myself as a humble trooper who had miraculously lucked into command school, I volunteered to take on leadership roles, even though I didn’t really know how to lead, even though I was afraid of the scrutiny the other cadets, recruits good enough to get into SCS the normal way, gave me. It was terrifying and stressful, but I learned, I got better. I continued to fight through my infantry professional term, eventually graduating in the top 3% of the cohort, and earning myself a crossover into the place I’d wanted to be all along–Officer Cadet School. And later this week, one year after entering SCS, I will return to Tekong Island, as a commissioned officer, to be a platoon commander in BMT, the place where I thought I’d left my dream to die. 

Looking back, I see now that while having my core assumptions destroyed had terrible effects, the slow process of building them back has made them stronger than before. While before, the assumptions were just that, assumptions, now I can point to my experiences over the last year to prove that I am what I believe I am. 

Although it’s only natural, perhaps we shouldn’t try quite so hard to protect what we believe about ourselves from reality. Forest fires are immensely destructive to lives and property, but forest managers have found that trying to completely prevent them from happening allows dead wood to pile up, making the fire even worse when it does inevitably, eventually break out. Periodic, controlled burns allow managers to get rid of flammable material, while still being small enough to control. 

In much the same way, it’s necessary to consistently subject yourself to difficult experiences, tough enough to challenge but not enough to break you. Avoid it for too long, and one day, you might bump into something truly overwhelming like I did, and burn to the ground like a forest full of dead wood. It’s painful, but controlled burns are needed to keep yourself updated, and allow something greener and stronger to grow up in its place. I found that out the hard way. I hope you don’t have to. 

Aaron was resident writer for the Homeschool Alumni in 2021-2022. His column Tales From Two Years  recorded his experiences in National Service. He is now based in the USA.

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