The 'cop matrix' and mental well being for police officers

No other career can so beat you down mentally, emotionally, physically and even spiritually as ours

Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?”
Neo: “No.”
Morpheus: “Why not?”
Neo: “Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.”

Transparently mirroring wisdom literature, the 1999 movie The Matrix may be the ultimate Messiah movie. The setting is a future world where almost all of humanity is unconsciously suspended in individual cocoons and mentally interconnected in a false reality – the Matrix. As it harvests their power, they’re blissfully content. Morpheus, an apostle of truth, leads a small band of humans who live outside the Matrix, but fight in it, hoping to free humanity.

In the above scene, eventual hero Neo must literally choose which pill to swallow: the lesser fate of returning to life in the Matrix (the blue pill), or taking up the dangerous challenge of self-determination and hope (the red pill).

Do You Believe In Fate?

Police work wasn’t your fate. We took different paths to get here – many of us felt “called” – but it was choice, not fate, which brought you to this unique career.

In a sense, you work in a Matrix, protecting those who only see part of reality. When you’re at work you are set apart from mainstream society. And because of the changes this job brings, when you’re off duty, you can continue to live somewhat beyond your previous paradigm, or Matrix.

Predictable things start happening to newly minted LEOs. Even before he or she begins to be molded by this career choice, others treat them differently. It may be heartfelt pride from family, an odd deference or stand-offishness from old friends; reverence from some, scorn from others.

During this time of change, we become more and more aware of our new reality. As our awareness increases, our once-comfortable old realities are no longer so reliable, and in a sense, we gradually transcend the Matrix.

All the while, curious fascination and judgment from others can separate us even further. No other occupation is like this.

Like it or not (and usually it’s both), this job does change you. Need proof? Pre-LEO, how many of your fellow citizens did you refer to as “Adam Henry’s”? (or, “Alpha Helo’s”, depending your department’s phonetic alphabet). Not nearly as many as you do now, right?

Did they change, or did you?

Because I Don’t Like The Idea That I’m Not In Control Of My Life

At some point when you were deciding on this career, in a symbolic sense, a blue pill and a red pill were placed in front of you, too. Though you knew your world would change, you wanted control, and you wanted to make a difference. So, not accepting a lesser fate for you or for society, you chose red. Re-entering the Matrix, you started seeing things afresh, through the eyes of a cop.

When you do your job right, that choice you made can make a huge difference. You are society’s protector, and your work has great value.

But one way of measuring value is cost. This career, if we’re not careful, can end up exacting a huge personal cost from us and our families. A complicated, deceptive array of factors contributes to a multitude of unique afflictions we’re prone to suffer. The truth is, our career and its station in society actually set us up for a far greater likelihood of personal conflict and drama.

Many of these things, we accepted up front. For example, we willingly took the good-versus-evil yoke upon our shoulders. We confront dark forces that not only make our job ripe for on-the-job death (there are plenty of jobs like that), but uniquely, for because-of-the-job murder.

There’s no need list all our unique job stressors which seem to conspire against us. You live these every day and know them well. However, there are other things that maybe you didn’t sign up for: less-perceptible things that can be slow, silent killers if we fail to fully appreciate them. It’s as if there’s another deeper, even seductive, Cop Matrix into which we can be lulled.

If we fail to properly armor ourselves against it, our cop world can become yet another false reality that can rob us, and those close to us, of lives fully lived. This is a Matrix where, in an ironic response to our esoteric awareness, we can unwittingly end up recoiling from life. It can be a subtle, creeping, anesthetizing transition. An eventual disconnect with the values we brought into this job, and even with the people and things we love.

And with that, a new cocoon.

From a statistical perspective, we are at greater risk from the perils of this Cop Matrix than from those of our real cop world. That’s because, in the cop world our vigilance serves us, and usually saves us. The Cop Matrix is more deceptive. It lets us keep our power, and even grow it. Yet it requires a fee: it might be trading attractive humility for unattractive pride, or warranted compassion for unwarranted callousness, or maybe even our principles for an ends-justify-the-means morality. Our strengths, overdone, can become our personal weaknesses.

Over time, we can become slaves to the Cop Matrix – we can believe we’re fully living, yet the business and pleasures of living that we once knew, with all its joys, relationships, and contentment, gets devalued and fades. We can get stuck in the Cop Matrix, and separated from a life fully lived.

It doesn’t have to be our fate.

Why Not?

At one end of the spectrum, some police psychology “experts” have essentially advocated duality — living a separate cop reality at work, and a non-cop reality off duty. This seems rather schizophrenic. There is another camp basically recommending that we simply don’t internalize the high ideals of our station in society, and treat it just like any other job. But the end to that defeatist idea is a dark world with no moral heroes to save it.

It seems like even the experts are confused about how to deal with the Cop Matrix. What is really going on here?

If you have been doing this job for a while, you’ve probably noticed the creeping change in the way our image is being re-cast in society. In the not-so-distant past, there was more of a reverence and respect for law enforcement. Now, we’re more often portrayed as just another sector of government workers, and our lowest moments are portrayed as our norm.

That post-modern visage – if it sticks – will go a long way in helping our critics’ desire to debase our cultural imperative to lead in our communities. And from a more personal perspective, this cultural shift serves to push many of us deeper into the Cop Matrix. It’s a vicious cycle. If we concede, not only will this lead to the slow death of our honor, but also, the very moral fabric of our society will suffer.

Here’s an alternate reality to consider: that we are society’s vanguard; that we are living (yet-imperfect) vessels of our society’s highest ideals. And it’s not just a job.

We need to understand how the Cop Matrix and the devaluation of law enforcement in society play off of each other. The growth of one fuels the other. The answer to both problems is for us (individually and collectively) to respond in our own synergistic way.

As best we can, we should pursue and possess the high ideals that rightly define our corps – but not just at work. We need to resolve to do our best to authentically reflect that honor and moral integrity (the root word being integer, or “oneness” of character) not only at work, but also distinctly in our non-cop rolls, as a mom, dad, spouse or friend.

With an eye towards our best version of ourselves, we should resolve to fully work in our cop reality, and simultaneously fully live with and among those who love us (and then, just to be safe, we should make sure that if we over-invest anywhere, it’s at home).

Basically, though it may sound like heresy in today’s world, through our best efforts at universally applying the principals that we already believe in, our professional identity and our personal lives can be at once integrated, yet still be distinct and wisely ordered (this was the work/life ethos of pre-industrial society, by the way).

Quoting the wisdom of Apostle Morpheus, our response to the Cop Matrix can be distilled to four essential steps:

1. “The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us.”

Transcending the Cop Matrix first means apprehending its murky presence. We should honestly assess by asking someone close to us – someone who knew us pre-LEO – how much of the Cop Matrix we reflect.

2. “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

This means we must not merely recognize the Cop Matrix, we must respond or act. Recent findings in neuroscience have shown that through the intentional, regular practice of rejecting negative thinking and purposefully choosing a more difficult, virtuous thought path, actual physical changes can occur in our brain’s wiring. Literally, new pathways are formed. Once formed, they become consistently easier to employ, so much so that they can eventually become a part of our new nature. This is the Cop Matrix, in reverse.

3. “Welcome to the desert of real.”

Our real cop world can be an emotional desert. The descent into the Cop Matrix, when it happens to any of us, is almost always a slow, imperceptible transition. But once there, we can find enough fellow LEOs to share in our distorted thinking and keep us there. To stay out of the Cop Matrix, we should seek out our own “apostle of truth,” a trusted partner, friend, or mentor who can check in on us and hold us accountable. Going it alone, some very smart, fine cops have been consumed by the Cop Matrix. Getting out and staying out necessarily means mutual reliance.

4. There really isn’t a good Morpheus quote for step four.

You can only squeeze so much reality out of a Hollywood movie, after all. Better to quote a real apostle – one who, in part, the character Morpheus was based upon. The Apostle Paul was once the chief law enforcement authority in his region. History records some of his own struggles in that role, including arranging an on-duty murder. Like many of us, he had plenty of baggage to drag him down. Yet, for the sake of everyone, he chose a wiser path:

“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the mark to win the prize.” (Ph 3:13, 14)

If you’ve been around a while, taking stock in your own descent into the Cop Matrix may reveal some regrets. So while steps one, two, and three focus on the present and future, step four involves resolving the past.

No other career can so beat you down mentally, emotionally, physically and even spiritually as ours can. And worse, because we’re wired to be keepers of the law, when we fall short of our high standards, we can beat on ourselves even harder. In light of our reality, living up to what we truly believe can be a heavy cross to bear.

So for you too, allow yourself to let it go, and press on. No matter your past, you’re still in the game. Your final chapter at work and in life has yet to be written, and it’s all still very winnable. In summary, it goes like this:

  • Recognition
  • Response
  • Accountability
  • Let go and press on.

Repeat as necessary.

Do You Believe in Fate, LEO?

Two pills were once placed before you. Not accepting a lesser fate for you or for society, when given the choice to make a difference, you chose red. Choose red, again.

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