Several summers ago, my four-year-old daughter decided that it would be the best idea EVER to jump off of our very carefully enclosed trampoline, which resulted in a lovely view of our southern Utah home from the inside of an ambulance. My spouse was absent because of his military duties (as is often the case when anything requires a 911 call), and I spent the next six hours waiting for the orthopedic surgeon to fix my daughter’s very fractured humerus. Not funny…
I sat restless, feeling uncharacteristically alone and afraid when, to my surprise, my next-door neighbor greeted me in the waiting room, bearing gifts of food and chocolate (a smartie, that one) and sat with me through the surgery. Elizabeth is a petite lady but packs a wallop in dedication and resiliency, and she took the time to sit, listen, and understand my anxieties. My concerns, my fears, and my emotions were real and important to her. But for her, the kindness she showed came at a cost; we were in the same hospital in which she had lost a child and where she had almost lost her own life. Her pain was real too.
But she still came for me. She sacrificed for me. She suffered with me.
And while a grouchy girl with a pink-casted broken arm paled in comparison to the indescribable grief of losing a child, I was still important to her. She could have chosen not to come and rightfully so. But she came. And in bearing the weight of her pain to share in mine, she provided a deep comfort with her presence.
It’s called compassion.
A powerful force of goodness, of love. A tide of service and support, comfort and understanding. To embrace others with genuine empathy, regardless of differences. The presence of compassion transforms lives by breaking barriers and scaling new heights.
Compassion means, literally, “to suffer with.”
And as military spouses, I’d daresay we suffer. While our reactions to troubling situations will undoubtedly vary, we ultimately understand each other on a deeper level. We understand grief. Tumult. Heartache. Fear. We understand unquenchable loneliness, the utter emptiness in saying goodbye.
I do. You do. We do.
And when we converge together to become a “we,” like birds who flock together, we can find safety and strength in numbers. We are a village. We are a community. We can do hard things! Compassion turns a single stick straining under the burden of pain into a bundle of branches, strong, hardy, and empowered, less likely to snap under the weight.
And we grow. We change, both the receiver and the giver. Giving love and comfort, walking the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes helps to whittle down our sharp edges to carve out beautiful, intricate, and powerful relationships.
So, where do we start? How can we help others when we see the needs of spouses so different from us? From different backgrounds, beliefs, and ideals? We can start by listening.
I have a confession. I’m a fixer. Not the oh-crap-the-sprinkler-turned-off-for-weeks-and-now-all-of-my-grass-is-dead kind of fixer (although that would’ve saved me a couple of embarrassing minutes on the phone with my husband). Instead, I tinker. I’m a regular grease monkey for personal problems. At the news of a down day, I rummage through my tool belt full of emotional fix-its and priority should-dos. People do, after all, want their problems fixed, yes?
Several years ago, my spouse and I attended a marriage retreat sponsored by the Utah National Guard, during which the instructor introduced an idea that would help solve many of our (okay, my) future arguments before they even began. He recommended that when, for example, my husband expressed concern about an impassioned topic, I should ask, “Do you want me to fix this, or do you want me to just listen?”
Weeks later, while listening to me heatedly discuss a sore subject, my husband asked me, “Do you want me to fix this, or do you want me to just listen?”
“No, I don’t want you to fix it! I just want you to list…Oh, I see.” I needed a listener. A real person who would silently empathize with my emotions, who would express non-verbal affirmations to my needs. An arm around my shoulder. A smile. A person who would just…listen.
Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Often, we show up to conversations with our tool belts stocked full of fixers, and we immediately get to work. Before long, however, the clink, clink, clink of our fix-its and should-dos drown out the conversation until the person is less a person and more of a problem to be fixed.
When we listen with the intent to understand, we take off our tool belts, brush off the sawdust, pull up a chair, and seek to “suffer with.” To understand why it was difficult for a friend with a deployed spouse to attend that wedding alone or why watching other children bear-hug their dads results in tears and a bowl full of brownie batter.
And when we listen deeply to the upheavals of human emotion, when we feel their waves, their walls, their dams break under the pressure and power of turbulent trials, we are privy to the beauty within, the beauty of grief, of trepidation, of yearnings. The tendrils of growth that, with time, will hang from trellises of accomplishment.
This growth is impossible without compassion.
With listening, you say, I can mold deep-rooted relationships of trust, love, and generosity? Friendships of iron, forged in the fires of trust and vulnerability. Compassion reaches beyond the fix-its into what is lasting and real. No more tinkering, no more repairing.
With compassion that comes from listening to understand, these bonds are built to last as we link arms in solidarity.
Kindness and Productive Service
When my spouse deployed earlier this year, I was left at home with three young children, ages six, four, and three weeks. Between my postpartum emotions, utter fatigue, the end of the school year, and other volunteer and recreational activities, I was, putting it mildly, drowning in motherhood (plus or minus a few expletives). But what caused the most stress in this time of overwhelm was not my children or the finances:
It was the yard. That white-knuckling, rage-inducing, jaw-dropping yard.
The yard from hell with broken sprinklers and grubs and erosion and hot spots and dandelion patches, and I couldn’t even take pictures of my children playing outside because then my husband would know just how badly I’d been exaggerating my “oh-sure-I’m-taking-care-of-the-yard” duties.
Oh, the shame.
And then one night, I heard a knock at my door. A family in my neighborhood chose to come serve MY family by taking care of my yard. No payment, no reciprocity, no eternal IOUs. Just service. Out of love.
“But, wait!” cried my can-do-it attitude. “Just tell them no. You can do it.” But in reality, I couldn’t do it. And the overwhelming feelings of gratitude and fulfillment quelled my need to do everything. I could let it go because they showed compassion to me. They stepped into my shoes, saw that I needed help, and, most importantly, acted on that observation. Linda Burton, the president of one of the largest relief organizations in the United States, stated in a 2013 address, “First observe, then serve.” Acting on an observation is sometimes the most difficult part, for fear of embarrassing others or stepping over carefully laid boundaries. I’m thankful that my kind neighbors followed suit.
Service isn’t simply a casserole service (although these days, a casserole sounds pretty gourmet) or a check on a list of to-dos. Studies have proven that productive service leads to creating genuine happiness and establishing resiliency. The ability to bounce back from difficult life events. It’s the real-life version of the popular late-90s hit: “I get knocked down / But I get up again / You’re never going to keep me down.” The prospect is heartening.
I’m sure it has to do with what and who we see when we serve. Service opportunities are far-reaching, global! But equally important is the need within our local communities. Needed among military spouses. We can serve each other, and in doing so, we see not only the underprivileged and the financially bereft, but we see people like us – the overworked, the underappreciated, the anxious, the lonely. We finally see not only with our eyes but also with our hearts. And our hearts, like that of Dr. Seuss’s classic Grinch, will grow immeasurably when we see what can become with goodness and love and compassion.
In a recent survey conducted among local military spouses in my region, nearly 97% of the spouses interviewed stated that they had received service in some way (with and without their service members present): their trash had been taken to the street, meals had been brought, rides given, yardwork completed, desserts offered (best one, in my opinion), children tended.
Can you imagine the impact of these deeds? The lifting of a burden to an overwhelmed spouse? A small token of love has a monumental effect.
However, doing so often requires us to stand up to fear, one of compassion’s most elusive opponents. Fear is a masked antagonist, often masquerading as comfort or ignorance. Stationed in Germany in 1976, a young military spouse named Christine discovered that due to a lack of housing, a fellow spouse was alone with a new baby nearly 20 miles away. Scared to death but knowing she should extend love and support, Christine used the bus system in an attempt to befriend this young mother. “We are still friends today,” remarks Christine. Without fear of the unknown, of rejection, of discomfort, we can profoundly impact others and receive needed mercies in return.
The compassionate service we render may seem small, as insignificant as a seedling swept into the wind, forgotten in the whirlwinds of life. The likelihood of recognition or the receipt of a standing ovation is rare. A thank-you may even be out of reach. It’s more of an intrinsic reward, fulfillment within. But productive service teaches and sets examples for broadening minds, both young and old, until the seedling of service takes hold in a patch of fertile ground and grows into a mature, resilient tree rooted in good deeds and service-oriented actions.
It’s never too late to learn to be kind, to reach out, to spend a few moments (yes, moments) of your time invested in listening and in good works. The reward is brilliant. Your life will be enriched in doing so.
It’s a series of fortunate events, I can promise you that.
now read… Love Is Present Here