Compassion is a recurring theme in my work with the wives of wounded warriors. I've watched dozens of women care for injured spouses who are severely disabled and angry about it, grappling with the demons of post-traumatic stress, in need of around-the-clock care and despondent at their new lot in life. In these families, compassion isn't optional, it's a matter of survival. Without sympathy, patience, kindness, and care, marriages would dissolve in tears and screams. Husbands and wives would lose hold of each other and drift apart.
And, of course, some do. The life of a spouse to a wounded veteran is tough and trying on a daily basis, and some simply can't hack it. But I've met many more women who draw on their own stores of compassion again and again to keep their husbands safe and healthy, their families happy and well.
Turn on the news for 10 seconds and you'll realize that compassion isn't flowing everywhere in our country right now. Every day brings a fresh report of violence between police and black citizens, a new story about the deep ravines of mistrust dividing regular people from a governing body designed to protect them. Police officers are on high-alert, acutely aware that the black community as a whole is angry at and afraid of them. Black Americans live in constant terror of cops who might make assumptions, act in fear, shoot too quickly, and end their lives. Both groups are unsure how to react, how to rebuild, how to regain trust. Both groups also seem to be unable to access compassion for those standing on the other side of this fraught and horrifying crisis. These two groups of people aren't just divided by beliefs or preferences, they are divided by dread, panic, terror, and suspicion. Even if anyone were able to locate an olive branch, would a single representative from either side be brave enough to present it?
In some ways, the compassion needed to construct a happy, healthy life with a wounded warrior is different from the compassion needed to heal the rift between American cops and black American civilians. But in others, it's quite similar. Here are lessons that could apply to both situations:
Anger and fear should be met with patience.
As any wounded warrior's wife will tell you, reacting to an angry outburst or rush of terror with more anger or fear just aggravates the situation. Serenity and patience, calm words and the presence of mind to wait out the storm are much better remedies. When police patrol-people encounter angry, fearful black citizens, they must work hard to be patient, quiet, understanding. And when black citizens are confronted by angry, fearful cops, we can only hope that being calm and following orders will keep the situation from spiraling out of control. This may not always work, as last week's incident that killed Philando Castille proves. But to decide that Castille's death means patience will NEVER work can only lead to further chaos.
Listen. Even when it's hard to listen.
In a family with an injured veteran, there may be stretches of silence that last months or years. But when that wounded warrior is ready to talk, it's essential that family members listen. Even if what's being said is excruciating to hear. At this point, many black citizens feel they are not being listened to by the police who have been hired and trained to keep them safe. There will be a lot of fury and rage in any rhetoric from either side, but if no one is willing to listen, no progress can be made.
Do your best to see the other side.
When a wife and her injured husband disagree, it's easy for the wife to slip into feelings of superiority. She shoulders the responsibility, handles the decisions, knows best. But for relationships to survive, both spouses must attempt to see through each others' eyes. This tactic will likely be challenging, since both sides see little evidence of reasonable or respectful behavior. But if people from both groups refuse to acknowledge that they are ALL wedged between a rock and a hard place, they will fail to come together to work on a mutually beneficial solution.
Tolerance, mercy, and empathy are in short supply right now, and understandably so. It may be a long time before police officers and black Americans are ready to sit down together and hash out their differences. But if both groups can take a page out of the wounded warriors wives' book – if both can make small efforts toward understanding and compassion in the interim – they have a far better chance of reaching a peaceful, respectful solution together.