“Some of you...think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you...it is all hell.” -- General William T. Sherman
My dad was an Army medical corpsman in WWII. He had just graduated college at age 20 when he signed up. He had never been away from home, having lived with his family while commuting to school. Sent overseas, he served in the Army Air Corps, mainly in North Africa and Italy, where he flew on missions to the front to assist the wounded and get them to safety, and retrieve those who would not be coming home. He was fluent in French, which helped particularly in Algeria, loved to dance (he would watch others dance, then tweak their moves to create his own style). He was funny, made friends easily, and was often the leader of his unit’s escapades. He helped start his camp’s newsletter, becoming the literary editor, and started a medic’s glee club called “The Dispensary Gloomchasers”. They were often asked by the other G.I.’s to sing “Far, Far Away”, but eventually, he won them over. He met my mom at a USO dance in Trenton, NJ shortly before he shipped out, and wrote hundreds of letters to her over the next three years. Those letters are poetic, full of hope and dreams; each one describes, in wonderfully romantic ways, his love for her, and imagines what their life together will be like.
It’s through those letters that I know these things about my dad. Sadly, I never got to know the person who wrote those letters. He had seen too much death and mayhem, and had created an impenetrable barrier to protect himself. The person I knew came home from the war with what we now call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). His world thereafter would always be a scary, threatening place. He married my mom weeks after getting home. Two months later his father died from a heart attack at age 56. Emotionally broken, with no job and no resources, my dad had to become the main source of support for his widowed mom, his new bride, and his extended family, who had relied on my grandfather for financial assistance to help them through life.
Before the war my dad’s life was one of privilege; after, one of hardship. Going to therapy was rare in those days. You were crazy if you went to a shrink, and who wanted to be seen as crazy? So, he did what he had to do, and provided well for his family, but bottled up his feelings, using angry outbursts to keep situations he didn’t know how to handle at a distance. I never saw him hug or kiss my mom, let alone me or my sister. Never saw him dance. Never heard him speak French. Although I’m sure he loved me as he was able, it was never demonstrated. He never encouraged me, complimented me, told me how proud he was of me. He carried clippings of my achievements in his wallet, bragged to his acquaintances, but never told me. Mom begged him; he would just say “he knows”. “No”, she’d say. “You have to tell him. He DOESN’T know.” He would turn away. He died at age 57, when I was 27. I think Dad would have been proud of all I’ve accomplished: my family, my career, the goals I’ve met. But he couldn’t tell me, and we both were poorer because of that.
I began reading his letters for the first time earlier this year. Mom had kept them in a box in the attic, then passed them to me. I also kept them in the attic until I decided that the unexamined life is not worth living, I took them down and read them. All 263 of them. I was amazed as I learned things about my dad that I never knew. I was sad about my missed opportunities to try and talk with him about his experiences, about his life, although the unsuccessful attempts I had made to talk with him about other issues told me that he wouldn’t have been able to share his memories.
At first I eagerly drank in the details of his life I never knew, taking notes so I would remember. I marveled at how warm, caring, sensitive, talented he was. Then, I searched carefully for the turning point. For when the change began. It was slow and imperceptible, but it was there. Eager to be discharged, but less joy, less emotion.
We all have struggles we work to overcome. We are intimately familiar with our own struggles, but can’t easily see the burdens others carry with them. Others couldn’t tell in casual encounters what dad was going through. It would be a good thing to remember that everyone has troubles, and to treat others kindly. To practice seeing the good in others and in the world around us. And, of course, to see the good in ourselves.
This doesn’t mean deny or dismiss the difficult or the mean. But striving to always look for the good and the humanity in others gives us strength, and inspires healing and peace. It helps us create relationships, and find common ground with the people with whom we interact. It also helps ease some of our own pain and heartache. It opens us to love, happiness, gratitude and healing. It feeds the soul.
Make a commitment to practice this. Start with seeing the good in those you love and in the world. With practice, try doing it with those who are more difficult. We are all connected. Looking at life’s beauty and wonder each day will change how your brain functions for the better. Set an intention each day to notice the goodness in your co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family. At the end of the day, name something that you appreciate about someone you met that day. Give thanks for all the good in the world. And, don’t forget about yourself. Be aware of the good you have done, the love you’ve shared, the healing you’ve assisted, the help you’ve given others through your practice.
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
"You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." -- William Arthur Ward
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” -- Dalai Lama
"At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -- Albert Schweitzer
"Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude." -- A.A. Milne