In popular media, military spouses are often portrayed only as participants in the ‘homecoming dance’, where service members are greeted at the airport by adoring throngs and tearful embraces from loved ones. Flags are waived, of course, and cameras are certainly running. Variations on this scene have a servicemember appearing at his or her child’s school, and surprising them after a long deployment. Men and women in uniform have appeared from behind Santa’s curtain at the mall to realize a child’s Christmas wish. Such scenes are noteworthy—if the local news crew is there, it must be—and make for great theater. We well up with collective pride at the dedicated service and abiding sacrifices of our servicemembers and their families, and tearfully empathize with a reunited family. And rightly so.
But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of life as a military spouse is not great drama, and rarely rises to the level of televised fireworks. Rather, the bulk of the ‘military’ time we spend as military families is uneventful tedium in far flung places and long, frustrating slogs of hand-to-hand combat with bureaucrats, administrators and functionaries. Much of the ‘military’ time we spend as spouses amounts to playing the waiting game: the interminable wait for our servicemembers to return from deployment, the long delays in receiving orders, the waiting in registration lines in housing or school offices, the thumb-twiddling hours we spend waiting on hold to speak with the 10th person we’ve dealt with today in our futile aim to get a straight answer to a straight question. Often, I’ve found that a successful day is finding a response that is not contradicted by three other people who have had seven friends who received ten different answers to the same question. The waiting game, in whatever form, never really seems to be a good enough story arc for, say, Army Wives. The drama is real, of course, but it is an inner drama, a not-ready-for-TV dramedy of ‘you vs. your own confusion, frustration and exasperation’. Such is the real lot of military spouses. It has been a blessing and a privilege for me. But it has also been a challenge…’challenge’ being the military euphemism for ‘I should have just stayed in bed'.
I try to be philosophical in those “challenging” circumstances, “try” being the operative word. But one perspective I always seem to fall back on and adopt is from Tom Morris, a philosophy professor, writer and public speaker. Morris calls it ‘The Principle of Dual Significance’, and I’ve found it helpful whenever I’ve found myself in one of those moods or situations when I find myself thinking “I should be doing more…with myself, with my family, and with my life”. Morris says that any activity, productive of any good, can be given a trivial description or a noble description. To illustrate, he considers three guys at a construction site. When those three are independently asked what they are doing, one says, “I’m hauling rocks”, and the second says, “I’m building a wall”. But the third says, “I’m building a cathedral”. Morris asks, “Who do you think is doing his best work and feeling his best about what he is doing?” Morris suggests that our daily tasks and chores are often minimized by the way we think about them, because we often frame our actions by what another person might see us doing at any given moment. But if we are able to expand our limiting attitudes by giving our tasks the noblest possible description, it enhances the way we see ourselves and our efforts.
Our daily lives and the struggles unique to military living may not be glamorous, and often do not even rise to the level of being difficult. But often, the continual need to uproot, pack, travel, re-root and re-stabilize can leave us feeling like rudderless, vagabond pawns. At times, living out of a suitcase and entertaining young children in a hotel or a radically foreign land for long stretches of time can leave you feeling adrift and claustrophobic at the same time. But I’ve found that it is important to frame those times, not as ‘yet another afternoon spent atrophying at some makeshift playground’, or ‘yet another morning spent with an agonizingly frustrating moving crew’, but as ‘another opportunity to partner with my spouse in the defense of our country and its ideals’. We spouses have the opportunity to bemoan all of the pedantry and nuisance of military living. But we also have the opportunity to deem all of our actions, and every one of our contributions, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, with the significance it deserves. Military living doesn’t always offer us a wealth of choices, but we always maintain the choice of what attitude we can adopt in whatever situations we face. It has been helpful to me to keep the biggest possible picture of what we are doing clearly in mind. Often, it is a supporting role, but not an insignificant one. The significance of who we are and what we do for our servicemember and our country is up to us to decide. I think Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (yes, the guy from ‘Gladiator’) is right when he says, “Your life is what your thoughts make it”. I mention this because Marcus Aurelius knew a thing or two about military living.