Several years ago, I learned the key to happiness – service to others and our personal relationships. At the time, I was emerging from an unhealthy relationship – one that had left me isolated and alone. Free for the first time in five years, and with the rest of my life (kind of) imploding, I decided to kickstart my emotional healing. So I did what a lot of service members do (though I’m not sure how many would admit it). I ran away to Afghanistan.
Fleeing problems at home by deploying to someplace far away is a tried and true method. It might seem counterintuitive. Why go somewhere dangerous, do something extraordinarily difficult, as a solution to whatever is happening at home?
Because nothing is ever the same by the time you return – including you. A deployment requires singular focus on the mission. There are no social commitments, no other work commitments, nothing else that you have to do. A deployment also takes you away from the people that you see every day. It pulls you out of the daily grind, the running in circles. Some people say you can’t run away from your problems. Well . . . I disagree. We may not be able to run away from our problems. But running away CAN offer space, time, air to breathe and new perspective.
My time in Afghanistan taught me many things. The two most important are that service and personal relationships are the keys to our happiness.
A few weeks a few weeks after I arrived at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I discovered that I was no longer depressed. Insanely busy, attempting to prepare myself and my 160+ Marines for deployment, I suddenly realized that I had no time to feel sorry for myself. Counterintuitively, I was the happiest that I had been in over five years.
Service, getting outside of myself to help others, that was my first lesson. This is the reason that I volunteered to be a literacy tutor, to join Team Rubicon and to do personal coaching. I am happy when I am helping others.
The second lesson that I learned was that relationships are the most important thing that we have.
Some of my favorite memories from Afghanistan are the time spent staying in touch with friends and the amazing care packages that I received. The reason that I started writing this blog was because of those friends.
When I returned to the US, I wanted to keep those friendships strong. But I have friends all over the world. You might think in the digital age that keeping in touch would be easy, but it was not. So I went the old-fashioned route. I started writing letters. With no expectation of return, I wrote to my friends to keep in touch. Several wrote back.
Trevor and I met when I worked for the US Navy, traveling to support the Navy’s relationships with its NATO partners. My boss at the time, Mr. M, introduced us. A steady kind of guy, not given to excitement or thinking too highly of most people, Mr. M kept his own counsel. Most people I knew were kind of scared of him. He wasn’t a scary guy – just really smart and tough when it came to spending the Navy’s money. But then, I always came to his meetings prepared.
On one of our European trips, I remember sitting on a coach bus, getting ready to go wherever the host country was taking us. (We spent a lot of time sitting on buses and vans during our trips) Mr. M was a couple of rows ahead of me. He abruptly turns around and starts gesturing to me, saying, “Beth, Beth, come here. There’s someone I want you to meet.” Who could this person be, I wondered. Who could have so impressed the unflappable Mr. M that I absolutely positively must meet this person right now?
Trevor was an engineer with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), but at the time was on sic year assignment to NATO (tough life, I know). She was also usually the only other woman at the NATO meetings. We became great friends almost immediately. Mr. M knew exactly what he was doing when he introduced us.
We had such fun, and I always enjoyed watching her present at the NATO conferences. She is dynamic, has so much energy and is so amazingly smart. Even after I left the Navy job, Trevor and I stayed in touch. She became one of my letter writing friends. I visited her in Newport, and housesat for her while she traveled. We got together when work brought her to DC.
When COVID-19 became a regular part of our lives, I doubled-down on my letter writing. One happy side effect – Trevor and I have had time for phone calls. These, of course, are accompanied by a glass of wine. (see pics below) I have so enjoyed our conversations. We usually chat for an hour or more without even realizing it. We laugh; we complain; we brainstorm; we share things we’ve learned. I hope we continue these, and look forward to our next call. I treasure the opportunity to deepen friendships (even with those far away) right now.
Of course, family relationships are just as important. I could have been in a lot of different places when the world shut down. I’m happy that I was in Tampa, with my brother and sister-in-law and her parents. We have spent a lot of time together, and this past weekend, we engaged in the one family tradition that I still absolutely love.
We made banana chocolate chip cookies and played card games.
I still smile remembering playing cards while we waited for a batch of cookies to come out of the oven. There is nothing better in this world than piping hot banana chocolate chip cookies. There is great debate on my mom’s side of the family as to WHO exactly invented the banana chocolate chip recipe. Grandma? Great Aunt Elsie? No one knows. But our Aunt Thelma made them best. She liked to make a big batch and put them in the freezer (they kept longer that way). The cookies never lasted that long. We were lucky if the batch lasted until the next day!
When boredom got the best of us last week, I thought, perhaps it’s time for banana chocolate chip cookies. So I gathered the ingredients (um, white flour and all) and Bruce found the UNO cards.
We had such a lovely evening. The cookies were as amazing as every. (Ghirardelli chocolate chips help) And we added a new game – UNO Jenga. (called UNO Stacko) Who knew this was a thing? It was a lot of fun, and I was impressed how long we were able to keep the game going. I do believe we are creating (or perhaps passing down?) a tradition to the next generation. I feel like banana chocolate chip cookies and game night might become a regular occurrence.
The lessons from Afghanistan continue to serve me well. I’m happiest when I’m helping others, and when I’m surrounded by the people I love. I hope you enjoy the time we have together right now. I hope you find this opportunity to reach out to those with whom you may have lost touch. And I hope you find this reason to maintain those relationships for many years to come, because they are what really matters. Till next week!