It has been interesting in these last two years, while Ry has been wearing The Uniform full-time, to hear what people think about military folk, both the soldiers and their families. The word that sticks out to me most is “hero.” And I’ve heard it applied both to the one in uniform and the supportive spouse. But here’s the thing: I am not a hero. My husband is not a hero. We are 100% human. Just as human as you are. And just as needy for our spouses as you are. You know how in love with and in desperate need of your spouse’s presence you are? Yeah. me too.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not whining here. I just have a strong desire to stop the “hero” narrative. Because I think it pushes soldiers into this supra-human category–this echelon above reality, where all the magical creatures live, like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and Spiderman. And my husband ain’t no Tooth Fairy. Well, actually he is the Tooth Fairy, but that just means that he’s more willing to stub his toes in the dark messy kids’ bedroom than I am and I hardly think that qualifies him as on the same par as Spiderman.
My point is, I think by calling soldiers and airmen and corpsmen (and those guys who float on and under the water) heroes, rather than demonstrating your great reverence for what they’re doing, you are actually diminishing their sacrifices by attributing their willingness and capacity to do what it takes to some sort of Super Power, or other-than-human characteristic. What I hear is “You have something I don’t that makes it possible for you to do this.” Embedded in that, whether you know it or not, is the implication that it’s easier for my husband and me to do this thing because we’ve been gifted with some . . . well, something, that makes it easier for us to do this than it would be for you. So in some weird, backdoor way, it lessens the weight and cost of our sacrifice.
Now, I realize that people who use these words are trying to say the exact opposite. I do. You’re struggling to put into words your appreciation and your admiration. And I so appreciate it! So, please don’t misunderstand. I’m trying to help you in the struggle and tell you about language that isn’t so helpful. And, maybe it’s just not helpful for me. So, maybe I’m just helping you help me. But maybe I’m also inspiring you to ask the soldiers and soldiers’ families you know how they feel about the “hero” talk. Ask them if it helps them feel better about what they’re doing. And if it does, by all means! continue to tell them that. Because I know that more than anything, you’d like to help and support and express your appreciation for soldiers and for their families.
For me? What I find most helpful? Words like this: “Wow, you must be dying a little bit inside every second your husband is far, far away. I know that’s how I would feel.”
Actually, I have a real-life demonstration of what has been most helpful. A very kind woman came to me, looked me straight in the eye, asked me how I was doing, and affirmed that “Yes. This is so hard.” And then she proceeded to equate my struggles and challenges with those that she faced when she was widowed. She didn’t say, “Well, at least your husband is alive. [Mine is dead.]” She in no way tried to point my attention to the bright side. She stood with me. Eye-to-eye. And said, “This is like being widowed. Even if it’s temporary. He’s gone. And you’re here trying to do everything on your own. And you’re trying to hold it all together for your children, be mother and father to them, while your beloved is gone. It is so very difficult.” I could have kissed this woman. If that wouldn’t have totally violated my rules about strict boundaries of my personal space.
And this widow is not an anomaly! Some of the most helpful and supportive encounters I have are with yet another (relatively young) widow in my life. She checks in with how I’m doing. She talks as if we have something in common, as if we speak the same language. I’m humbled by her, because I am very cognizant that my situation is not exactly the same. My husband is alive. And he will be coming back to me. And I still get to talk to him on the phone and see his face via Facetime. I am in better shape than either of these women. And yet, and here’s what’s most important, I think, neither one of them for a second suggests that my situation could be worse. Neither one of them lifts up before my mind the things about this deployment business for which I should be grateful. Not a single, “Buck up!” or “Suck it up!” Nor, “Look on the bright side!” No. They look me in the eye. They know and respect that I’m suffering here (on my own scale) and they neither minimize nor deny it. They do not hide from my pain.
And maybe that is the real key. We humans have a tendency to run the opposite way from pain. I know I do. When I can. Even when we see pain in others, our first reaction is to “RUN AWAAYYYY!! RUN AWAAAYY!!” And maybe widows have gained the capacity to stare pain and suffering full-on, to stand in the midst of it, to feel and experience the full weight of it. They know there’s no escaping it; that there is no way around it, only through it.
I know I’m not really a widow. That’s why I stand humbled by the care of these two bona fide widows. I am fully aware, and fully grateful that my husband will, indeed return to me in the not-so-distant future. I’m even aware that on the Grand Scale of Suffering, this really is barely a blip. (Though I would refer you to this post for my feelings about comparing pain and suffering.) But I am struggling. And hurting. And, yeah, suffering through these long days and months.
So, am I a hero, then? No. No. Good grief I barely know what time of day it is and generally forget to eat and I use run-on sentences like someone’s paying me based on how many words I can cram between periods. I am completely human. As is my husband. And I love my husband. And he loves me. And our day-to-day lives depend upon teamwork, mutual up-lifting and mutual dragging-along, upon laughter together and the sharing of household tasks like cooking/cleaning/laundrying/grocerying/garbage-taking-out-ing/etc. etc. etc. Our day-to-day lives depend on these things. Every day. So, yeah. For a year (more or less, give or take) apart? It feels exactly how you would expect it to feel. Difficult. Painful. Sad. Lonely. Interminable. And all around pretty darned lousy.
Why do we do it then? Well, because it’s his job. It’s the vocation to which God has called him. It’s the work for which he is most gifted and about which he is the most passionate. Because he loves soldiers. And he loves to care for them and to be there for them and to support them and to challenge them and to play football with them (and pretend he’s as young as they are) and to be with them. and for them. To be walking, talking, breathing grace to them. Right where they are. That’s why we do it.
Because once our savior stared pain and suffering full-on in the face and did not turn away from it. Because living the life to which he’s called us requires us to do the same. May he take our little efforts and bless them and multiply them to be a witness—for as many who see—to the One who truly sacrificed, who suffered willingly and graciously, for true Life, and Life abundant.