Fostering Gratitude in Military Life

One of the reasons why military life can be so incredibly difficult is that we know what family life is supposed to look like. We know that the moves, the separations, and the unmanageable schedule — essentially all the things that drive us nuts — aren’t even part of the picture for most civilian families.

In the words of former president Barack Obama, “Our troops keep our nation safe from threats here at home and around the world, and our journey forward is not sustained by those in uniform alone. The United States is stronger and safer thanks to the millions of military family members who, in sacrificing cherished moments with their loved ones, selflessly afford us precious time with ours.”

Family readiness is fleet/force readiness after all; sometimes, that reality can seem beneficial, at other times, unfortunate.

The natural inclination can be to say, “If only…” “If only X, which is the driving force behind my anxiety, wasn’t a part of the picture.” The military can seem like a vortex of negative events outside our control, and yet to some degree, when we give in to the frustration, we rob ourselves of yet another level of control.

But we have the ability to adjust our perceptions and reactions. Gratitude is more than something that happens to us; there’s a reason why it is often paired with the word practice. We practice gratitude. We give thanks. We make choices about our thought life, and those choices affect our perception and our behavior.

Don’t get me wrong, this is no action call to plaster on a fake smile. Rather, it’s an encouragement to not let the bad rob you of the good; don’t let it take a drop more than necessary. And it’s also a plea to see that even when you may feel alone, you aren’t; you are one in a sea of millions who are making it work.

How do we foster gratitude in ourselves?

For years, my mother has had a cartoon on her fridge that she clipped out of a Thanksgiving Day newspaper. It shows a solitary turkey watching the Thanksgiving Day sunrise with the line, “We need to be grateful for many things that did not happen.”

I think that cartoon, likely long forgotten by everyone except my family, captures the essence of what drives gratitude in our hearts. The key lies in shifting our focus from the “if onlys” that exist on some hypothetical horizon, to the things that are real and tangible.

Gratitude comes when we’re willing to look critically at a situation and recognize what is true about it. Virtually nothing is clear cut; there are almost no situations that are all negative or all positive.

  • Are you willing to be the kind of person that pays more attention to the positives?
  • Are you willing to magnify your spouse’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses?
  • Are you willing to spend more time reveling in the best parts of a duty station than you do hating the worst parts?
  • Are you able to see the intrinsic value your kids have, and how that matters more than their bad behavior, on a consistent basis?
  • And on the worst of days, can you spend time contemplating the calamities that never came, as much as the ones that did?

This is no easy-peasy bullet list; being willing is just the beginning of a lifelong process.

What about in our kids?

Military kids are cut from a different cloth. With a great many unique experiences packed into just a few years, they’re resilient, and patient. They teach me all the time. But, as they surely remind you on a daily basis, they are just kids. Kids working to process a lot of heavy stuff. The critical thinking necessary to analyze the big stuff is still in the works, even more so for them than for us.

If you’re onboard with the first portion of this piece, then you’re already doing the most important thing you could to foster gratitude in your kids. Human beings can spot forms of hypocrisy long before they are old enough to spell the word. This isn’t to say that parents should be dishonestly saving face, but rather that they should be driven to keep the focus in the right area.

If your kids are discouraged, and you’re discouraged and unable to have a well-balanced conversation about the specific struggles of military life, then it will be nearly impossible for them to do so.

Not only is practicing something the best way to ensure that our kids understand how to pattern that behavior, but raising grateful kids translates to caring adults. Because the type of attitude that is fostered in gratefulness bleeds into all areas of life, it’s not a way of life that can easily be shirked off.

What do you have to be grateful for?

Here’s the thing about tough circumstances: the difficult ones are pretty much always difficult because of good things. Deployments would be easier if we didn’t love and depend on our spouses. PCSing would be easier if we wouldn’t miss anything about the place we were leaving behind. Payday at the commissary wouldn’t be so irritating if we didn’t have the finances that make standing in a mile-long line worthwhile.

If you take hold of the thing you’re struggling with and you follow it back to it’s root, you’ll almost certainly find a person or an experience, and a version of yourself that provides all the reason in the world to move forward with a grateful heart.

Posted by Chloe Moore, Navy spouse, writer, and parent

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