Endurance and Purpose: Antidotes to Despair

Last month, I was asked to write a note to wives of Los Angeles SWAT team members (“warrior wives”) after a SWAT officer was killed in a real life incident.  I thought it made sense to share it with all of you:

Not long ago, I received an award from a Native American patriot group for being “the proud mother of a deployed American paratrooper.”  The representatives of this group travel the country giving special awards to military personnel and their families honoring their efforts, sacrifices, and suffering.  Part of the quite moving ceremony was that I was given a Native American name.  The representative of the tribe said that he got special permission from the elders to do so, and that he prayed to the spirits for many days until they told him what name to give me:  Walks With Warriors.

The obvious irony is that I talk about “warriors” with great reverence and respect almost every day on my radio program.  Modern-day warriors include the military, firemen, and the police.  These folks elect to put themselves in harm’s way for perfect and imperfect strangers.  Why?  Because as the hot dog commercial touted, they “obey a higher power.”  That higher power is purpose.

When my son volunteered for the military, I was at once proud and scared.  I talked to him just before he left for basic training and said something like “You know, honey, this is not like a video game or shooting targets.  There will be young men on the other side trying to kill you before you kill them.”  “Mom,” he replied, nonplussed while I was reverberating with discomfort, “the way I drive, I could get killed on the freeway.  Of course, I don’t want to die or even get hurt.  And some day, I’m going to die anyway, because, eventually, we all do.  If I die in combat, I will at least have died for a noble purpose.”

I was stunned.  My eighteen year old wild kid had overnight turned into a man who understood that a life without purpose is the greatest loss.  The constant memory of that conversation is what buoys me as a mother of a combat soldier.  I’m so proud.

I have used my own experience to help the mothers, wives, and children of warriors; I help them understand that they are not just wives, mothers, and children – they are warrior wives, warrior mothers, and warrior children – and provide them real back-up for these extraordinary people  The sacrifice of time, energy, commitment, financial riches, and sometimes life and limb, make these warriors and their families special and deserving of infinitely more respect than they get by some who don’t appreciate the price of freedom from enemies foreign and domestic, as well as from natural disasters.

I am reminded of a scene from the Yul Brynner version of the film, “The Magnificent Seven.” It takes place in Mexico, where a small village is one of the many terrorized by a roving gang of Mexican bandits preying on their own.  Yul and six of his gun-slinging buddies are hired to protect the town.  The scene of most importance to the issue of heroes and warriors is one in which one of the gunslingers tries to shoo away two young boys who are enthralled with him as a warrior and hero.  One of them insults his own father, calling him a coward.  The gunman grabs him and yells at him (I’m paraphrasing here):  “We’re just men with guns.  Your fathers are the real heroes.  They work hard every day trying to squeeze food from the dirt to take care of your mothers and siblings.  They struggle against the forces of nature and the evil of bandits.  And they survive to protect and provide for you – they are the real heroes!”

The truth is, we need both.  We need those willing to fight evil and disasters and we need those who toil each day supporting those warriors and the life they have us live.  When we lose “one of ours,” and collapse into negativity and despair, we destroy 1) what they built, and 2) what they lost.  Their deaths are best honored by our continuing to do what they lived for:  to have wonderful, productive, happy, and safe lives. 

Don’t take what they lost and waste it with self-pity and rage.  Take what they lost and honor their memory and their efforts by squeezing every ounce of joy that life,  love, relationships, hobbies, work, family, and just plain smelling the lilacs can give.

We most honor the deaths of warriors by continuing their commitment, not by giving up on our own. 

A respected rabbi once said:  “Despair is a cheap excuse for avoiding one’s purpose in life.  And a sense of purpose is the best way to avoid despair.”  I have relied on this sentiment many times as despair has grabbed at my feet.  I hope this helps you.

My heart is with all of you, past and present.

Dr. Laura C. Schlessinger