Gratitude AND Empathy on Veterans Day
It’s only fitting that my blog this week is written in honor of the men and women who have risked their lives in order to serve and protect our beautiful country. Below is a post I shared last year at this time, but the message is equally powerful today.
I have very fond memories of Veterans Day as a child. Perhaps the greatest memory was our family’s annual tradition of attending the Veterans Day parade in my hometown of Albany, Oregon. The odds of a cold, rainy day were usually pretty high, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from lining the streets in anticipation of seeing their favorite float or watching the local high school band march in perfect unison as they played their shiny instruments. For many of the adults present, it was an opportunity to celebrate and honor local veterans who had served in a time of war. As a child; however, the highlight of the parade for me was the Albany Woodpeckers fire truck, which was populated by a group of men who served as a local hospitality committee for the city of Albany. Adorned with bright red jackets that could be seen from miles away, each of the Woodpeckers would throw handfuls of candy to the crowd. In fact, it was quite common to see children jockeying for position in hopes of receiving more than their friends, or in my case my brothers. I can still see the smiles on the Woodpeckers faces as they watched us throw our hands up in the air, in anticipation of more, more, more.
I mention this childhood memory as it serves as a great reminder of the narrow lens we tend to have as children with regard to veterans. At that age, it wasn’t about honoring THEM (the veterans); it was about ME and how much candy I could amass. On a day that was meant to celebrate veterans, I was celebrating myself. What was lacking? Perhaps a dose of empathy.
Today as I reflect on the importance of Veterans Day, it’s not about a parade or candy, but rather the tremendous amount of gratitude that I feel in my heart for our veterans, past and present.
This past week, I presented a lesson on empathy to several hundred students, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. My aim was to encourage them to practice “standing in the shoes” of others, regardless of whether or not they could personally relate to their circumstances. This means acknowledging what the other person might be thinking, or trying to feel the various emotions they might be feeling. While we all possess the ability to do just that, it’s only possible if we are willing to set aside our own thoughts and feelings so that we may see life through their eyes. I call it putting on our empathic lens.
Well, today it donned on me that what our veterans deserve most is our empathy. It’s easy to thank a veteran for his/her service or to attend a parade commemorating their commitment to our country, but it’s much more difficult to spend time acknowledging what they might be thinking, or attempting to feel what they might be feeling. While their time of active duty may be over, let’s not forget that all veterans possess a varying degree of thoughts and emotions that are a direct result of the many difficult events they either witnessed or experienced. Furthermore, let’s acknowledge the fact that it’s these same thoughts and emotions that tend to manifest in different ways. Some experience post-traumatic stress disorder while others struggle with mild to severe anxiety. While it may be easy for a fellow veteran to empathize, the fact is that the majority of us can’t even fathom what they might have experienced. Having said this, it doesn’t mean we can’t try to use our empathic lens and attempt to stand in their shoes.
So, in the spirit of empathy, next time you see a veteran, rather than simply saying “thank you”, try saying “I care about you”. I care about your service, but more importantly I care about you as human being.