For a few months now I've been attending our local "Warrior's Journey Home" group. It is a group for vets who have served in any of our wars, and for those people who care about their experiences and want to be there to support them. The vets who come do so in order to talk through their experiences, not with a professional, but just to be able to speak what they went through, what they continue to go through, as a result of their time serving, in the presence of people who will listen, care, and intentionally love and support them without judgment. It is an awe-inspiring experience to be honored with their stories, with their trust, with their feelings about what they experienced and continue to experience as a result of their time spent in military service. Everyone in the circle can share, can speak, without others offering advice or trying to "fix" them or argue or even discuss what has been said. The rest of us are there to listen, and we take on that role with an awareness of the amazing gift it is to us to be included in their sharing. Often even the people who have not served in a war share. They share the experiences they've had with other vets. Or they share how they have been impacted by the stories they are hearing. Or they share something they have read or learned about what it is to serve in a war. Their stories, experiences, thoughts, are also gifts to the rest of us who are present to listen.
But I realized last night as I listened that I have never once shared or spoken in this circle, except during the initial check in and the ending check out where we simply look one another in the eye and promise to be present in that place.
The people who know me know that it is not because I have nothing to say. It is hard to get me to shut up in other situations. I have opinions, and thoughts, and feelings about almost everything. But as I sat there last night, I realized that I don't speak in that group because I am truly, deeply awed by what the people in that room have been through, what they have suffered, what many of them continue to suffer (because of PTSD, war injuries, etc.). I say nothing because I am aware, during that time, in that space, that the traumas and tragedies I have experienced in my life time are so small and insignificant in comparison to what these vets have gone through. I have not gone through what they have, so what is there for me to possibly say in that space? I can only listen, and care, and support them by listening as they process through their histories.
Today I went to visit one of my parishioners who is very ill. She was lying in her bed, as she is transitioning towards death, and she made the comment that she can not imagine going through everything that I have experienced. She said that she feels she has nothing to say when she looks back at her life and compares it to what I have been through. She named some of her own tragedies - divorce, loss of a second, beloved husband to death, the physical pain she sometimes now experiences as cancer takes over her body. But she felt that these experiences were small and insignificant when compared with the challenges I have faced.
As I listened to her I found myself wanting to argue with her. "No! Your experiences are every bit as significant! They are your life - your journey, your lessons, your blessings, your gifts, your challenges, your opportunities to grow and learn and move and respond to what life has given you. Your experiences are different, but they are not less meaningful or less important. We cannot compare suffering (or joy!) in this way, or somehow discount the things we have gone through as trivial simply because they are different and have impacted us differently."
And then as I found myself speaking these words, I remembered last night. Ah.
Whatever the stories of other people, I am deeply blessed to hear them. Whatever the struggles and traumas, or amazing wonderful experiences others have gone through or are going through, I see it as an awesome honor to listen, to be brought in on their journeys, to be trusted with those stories and to be welcomed into their thoughts and feelings.
But their stories really are about them. They aren't about me. They aren't invitations for me to compare my life and find it wanting or shallow - either in joys or in struggles. They aren't judgments or condemnations that say my life has lacked courage or strength. And when I find myself focusing on my own life in comparison, I am failing to listen and be fully present with them in that moment.
So for today, I accept my life for what it is. And I continue to be grateful for what others choose to share with me. I will endeavor to listen better, to be present more fully. For that is my call in those moments.