“If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter.”

With a nod to Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata,” one of my favorite poems, Rosemary Williams included this line as one of ten bits of wisdom to consider on our journeys to success. Williams, who is the Executive Director of Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic (S.A.F.E.) and a former military spouse, was speaking at the 2018 Military Spouse Town Hall.

In a room of military spouses, who had gathered in the spirit of camaraderie, support and celebration, an energy reverberated about the room, convincing us without difficulty that when we work together, we are stronger.

If only all of us could always be in a room like Town Hall.

But there are times when comparisons are made. The military life demands us to participate in high-stakes situations, which can feel surreal and profound. And, at times, such experiences might feel so intense, so extreme that we measure ourselves against each other. In other words, as we grow in our experiences, we gain more “street cred.”

Have there been times when each of us has compared, or – dare I say – judged from time to time, even if only within our hearts? Making comparisons is, perhaps, part of being human, but the way we handle that instinct is what’s important. As I reflected on this, a few things came to mind.

When Pressure Is on the Rise

If we were to look at our military life on a graph, we would probably see a series of valleys and hills with varying crests. Valleys are the merciful times when things are fairly calm. Hills represent times when military life was turning up the pressure, during a TDY, a PCS, a deployment or some other military life event.

Years ago, I sat around a coffee table with a group of spouses, while one spouse vented about trouble with her kids while her husband was TDY. Her situation sounded difficult, but another spouse whose husband was deployed shut her down. At least the TDY spouse’s husband would return soon, she argued. The deployed spouse went on to describe pressures and frustrations with her own kids, and the TDY spouse didn’t contribute any more to the conversation.

I remember feeling sorry for the TDY spouse, because her struggles were certainly legitimate. But I also thought that the deployed spouse’s comment was coming from her own place of stress and weariness. This is legitimate, too.

In her article “10 Reasons to Stop Judging People,” clinical psychologist Barbara Markway reminds readers that judgment is a “natural instinct,” but that we should try to “be mindful” and “depersonalize.”

Before we rush to shut someone down, take a pause and figure out a way to rephrase our words into something that won’t cause harm. And if judgmental words are said, recognize that often those words come from a place of pain, and they’re not about you at all.

When My Life Seems Harder than Yours…

Across the branches, a number of factors can contribute to a person’s assessment of how challenging their military life has been.

  • The number of times you’ve PCS’d
  • The number of times your service member has deployed
  • If you’ve had a baby or experienced a family member’s death while your service member was deployed
  • The average length of your service member’s deployments
  • The number of year-long deployments or remote tours you’ve endured
  • The intensity of your service member’s job – whether it’s operational or supportive
  • Whether your service member’s deployments require him or her to engage in combat/go “outside the wire,” which, by extension, increases anxiety and fear at home

If you check off more boxes, does it make your life harder? If you don’t, is your life a breeze? Not necessarily.

When spouses check off items in this list, it might not always lead to a feeling of great suffering. It could also cultivate a sense of proud strength, sometimes cloaked in stoicism; they’ve endured a lot, tested their abilities and realized they are capable of managing more than they believed.

Still, many of us have experienced judgments. Maybe we can remember judging, when we heard a voice in our head saying, “If only you really knew.” Or, maybe we can remember feeling judged, when a voice in our head cried out, “How can you dismiss my pain?”

Here’s what I think it all boils down to: compassion.

The military life is a breeding ground for highly sensitive life experiences, unique to each person, and to each situation. Regardless of the spouse’s past experience or the current situation’s intensity, each experience is valued as a sacred piece of a person’s life.

These experiences are so very separate from life outside the military community, and spouses need to lean on people within the military community for support. They’re really the only ones who are capable of extending the right kind of empathy. As Julie, author of “Soldier’s Wife, Crazy Life,” writes, “Having that compassion helps build up the military community instead of tearing it down.”

What Happens When We’re Compassionate

Comparing other people’s experiences to our own is a natural thing. We probably can’t stop ourselves from doing so. But, we can keep in mind that each person’s journey feels deeply personal to the individual.

So, when we interact, we can be mindful of what we say. We can be compassionate, and try to find common ground even when there doesn’t seem to be any initially. If we succeed in doing this, perhaps then we’ll avoid becoming “vain or bitter.” Perhaps then we’ll be able to work together more easily. Perhaps then we’ll become more resilient, sew more meaningful friendships and build stronger communities.

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