First, let me make it clear that I don’t believe spirituality is about religion. I believe spirituality could be described in the words our Founding Fathers — enshrined in our Declaration of Independence — as “the pursuit of happiness.”
Happiness is a state of being that includes contentment in our state in life — joy with the good things we experience, possess or know. It’s not just an emotion — not as it is understood in the Declaration — but is an ideal for the human person to strive to attain in his or her life. That pursuit is an “inalienable right,” according to the founders who signed that timeless document.
A right is something we all should have because of the dignity of our personhood. And so, not on a purely intellectual or physical level, each one of us is always trying to find that state of being happy; it is a spiritual pursuit.
Spirituality isn’t necessarily a creed, but might be an understanding of God — maybe a relationship with him. I happen to believe in the triune God (father, son and holy spirit), but that’s my belief. Whatever your concept of an entity greater than yourself is, or if you simply have a reverence and regard for nature and humanity, for the vast majority — and throughout the history of civilization — there is something within each of us that longs and searches for that “something” greater than the self. Or, at the very least, for most people there is something that appreciates the complexity and diversity of our world and of our own existence, as well as the lives of others.
We often include ‘social and emotional’ within the mind/body/spirit concept for what makes us human. I believe that’s because they are other dimensions of our spirituality. We are social beings; I think we want to know that somebody is out there who knows we’re alive, cares about our triumphs and our setbacks, someone we can talk to who will really listen. Those are basic desires of our human hearts and we all long for them.
For me, my faith sustains me through the challenges of my life, particularly my Army life. I have to say that those challenges — the questions I’ve asked, the leaps of faith I’ve taken — others can relate to in their lives, even if they are not married to or in the military.
In a very difficult circumstance, there was a time when I knew I was not alone, that God was with me — but I felt little to no comfort through the heavy, ugly oppression that engulfed me. I knew God loves me, but I couldn’t do anything about it. And by that I mean I couldn’t rejoice, I couldn’t be productive.
It was my husband who encouraged me to seek behavioral health support, out of his love and concern for me. When I finally shared with him how I had been feeling, I would say he was shocked. He said that what I described was “alarming” to him. When your husband expresses that kind of concern about your emotional state, it is the wakeup call you need — it certainly was for me, anyway.
There was never any concern about what “others will think” or worry about how it might affect his career (which it didn’t, nor would it); his response was, “go get the help you need and I’ll support you no matter what happens.” Just sharing my inner struggle and suffering with my husband was a huge burden lifted, but his compassionate response — and the time I spent with the psychiatrist in Heidelberg’s American Army hospital in the following months — was a huge blessing. I very quickly found I was feeling lighter, less anxious, more grateful and more energetic than I had in a very long time. I would go back occasionally, once I was doing better, to follow up with my doctor and things remained on an even keel for me emotionally.
I share my depression story because I want to encourage other people who are close to despair to find a professional to work with them and help get them back to hope and living life again. I have had a mere glimpse into the state of being so hopeless and sad that even a loving family doesn’t give joy anymore; there is no comfort there. I experienced that in a small way.
When I hear of someone committing suicide who seemed “fine” and had “so much to live for — how could they?” I remember how I felt right before my husband sent me to get help. I started to think that my wonderful, loving family, would be better off without me — that’s how far I’d sunk.
Of course, I know in reality that they would be lost without me. But in that state of depression, everything seems so awful you can’t imagine being good for anyone. So,if you are feeling anything like this, please tell a loved one, whether that’s a spouse, friend, parent or a sibling so they can walk with you on your journey back to a productive, positive life.
I believe things happen for a reason: I believe that I walked through that darkness in order to be a more compassionate, less judgmental person who could encourage other people who are struggling with post traumatic stress or depression to seek help to get well. I have an empathy I could never have known if I hadn’t gone through depression personally.
There will always be a stigma attached to behavioral health problems if we aren’t willing to publicly share our own experiences with them.
There is a prayer I have often said where we ask God that he “joins us in the laughter and weeps with us in the pain,” while we ask him to remind us that he is always with us, sharing in those joys and sorrows. That’s what spirituality encourages for me; thoughts like these.
I urge you to think about what spirituality means for you. For me, it involves prayer. For you, it could be meditation or communing with nature; but don’t neglect that facet of your being. I entreat everyone to give at least as much thought and care to your spiritual life as you do your physical training, nutrition intake or rest and relaxation.
I beg you to think about your life and place in the world. If you believe there is a God, do some research into some of the world religions, talk to people of faith whose lives emanate joy and peace to see if you can learn something from them on having a real relationship with God. And try praying, if you don’t. Believing in God and having a relationship with him are not the same thing.
Prayer is merely talking to God. So, even though it may seem strange initially, try talking to God. I believe he is listening and that he is communicating with us. We just don’t listen very well. There are too many distractions — doubt or even fear.
If you struggle with the pressures of life, you can always find a minister in your community. For soldiers and their families, there are chaplains both in your unit or the garrison. And there are behavioral health professionals, as well, who you can confide in and seek support from if you do not want to consider a religious person. But I do believe it is vitally important to seek help when life seems overwhelming. Behavioral health professionals are equipped to help figure out your way ahead in life.
I would not presume to tell anyone what is best for them. But, I can certainly share with you what works for me and what I believe could equip others to handle the struggles and challenges of life. I am grateful for this opportunity to do so. To know I am not alone is my most comforting, sustaining belief. I just wanted to give you something to consider.
Lynda MacFarland is the wife of the III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general. She is a proud Army wife, mother and advocate for military families.