by Kallie Culver, Guest Contributor
In his groundbreaking research at the turn of the century, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert Putnam, a renowned political scientist, forewarned that the very social fabric of America was coming apart.
One does not need to look very far in our news today to wonder if he was right, even nearly 20 years ago.
At a time where America seems more divided than ever across every major social, political, economic, religious and cultural issues — I find myself increasingly disconnected and dissatisfied with the voices yelling the loudest answers wherever I turn on all sides: the TV, the newspaper, the phone in my pocket, the heated conversation I overhear.
Feeling so lost, I find myself trying to ask better questions.
Who are the quiet leaders offering insightful steps for tackling today’s complex challenges that affect us all?
How can we have better conversations where we actually hear each other?
How can we rediscover timeless virtues like wisdom, civility, kindness, deference and humility?
Where are people showing up despite their differences and creating space for connection?
I grew up on a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere Texas, 50 miles from the nearest Walmart. Throughout my life I have lived in 6 different states, in rural and urban communities, across the United States. I have also lived abroad for several years in Japan.
I know what it is like to feel intricately a part of a small-town community full of beautiful traditions and connection that goes generations deep. I know what it’s like to grow up all too quickly and to feel forgotten by many in that beautiful place, after a devastating divorce left my family and friends shattered on all sides. I know what it’s like to live far from home and forge bonds with friends who become closer than family, as you live life together through thick and thin. I know what it’s like to move again, deeply grieving their absence when you find yourself somewhere new, surrounded by strangers who live mere feet away.
I have learned to recognize the priceless value of community and belonging mostly by grappling with their loss.
A beloved author, Dr. Brene Brown said,
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
To feel at home in the world, to feel seen and heard and loved and wanted – there is perhaps nothing greater.
The reason why finding belonging is now a recurring theme in my life, lies among the community I have been navigating for almost 8 years now — the American military.
I find myself most at home among its hidden ranks – the spouses and families of our service members, as I too joined this tribe because of love.
Attempting to find my place in this community, at first, looked like I was going about it all the wrong ways.
Military spouses are known inside this military community and from the outside world, not as individuals or by what we do, but rather just for whom we are married to. We enter this community in someone else’s shadow.
Adjusting to living in that shadow unsettles even the best of us. With this shadow comes the social expectations, stigmas, stereotypes and cliques like anywhere else.
Common social markers like military rank (officer or enlisted), military career fields (pilot, medical, engineer, security, etc.), branch of service, number of deployments endured, levels of community participation and volunteerism, the spouses’ choice to stay-at-home or work, the choice to have children or not – all of these individual characteristics of our lives often waylay many of us into shallowly defining who fits in where and how well we do it.
The painful reality is that resorting to the game of merely fitting in often leads me to only staying within my social comfort zones and avoiding anyone who might make that difficult. If comparison is my tool, then measuring myself against people just like me is rather safe; but if they have different experiences or beliefs, or have made different choices the risks of me falling short is far greater.
I have to resist this pull to put qualifiers on what social circles or relationships I engage in. The deeper reality is that I can’t afford to only invest in relationships based on proximity or similarity.
Unless I wanted to be perpetually lonely, the frequent moves of the military life have taught me the timeless lesson that to make and keep real friends, I have to continually work to be a friend.
Essentially, if I truly want to belong anywhere – I have to actively work to let others belong too.
For those who are willing to do the work, the military community’s greatest gift lies in building relationships that last a lifetime.
Dr. Brown speaks to the legacy of this community when she said
“True belonging is not something that you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart.”
Service members, veterans and their families at their best embrace a lifestyle that stands as a unique model of service, belonging and community.
We embrace all who have answered the call to serve. We support and honor their families. Within its active, supporting and retired ranks, we are comprised of every race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, culture, and socioeconomic background.
We know that sharing a meal helps us connect across unimaginable differences.
We show up for each other’s religious traditions regardless of our own and celebrate holidays together with whoever is missing family close by.
We show up for spouses and families with tangible support when it matters most – whether it’s to make them a meal, mow their yard, shovel their driveway, or hold their hand through delivering a baby.
We work hard to create space for hard conversations on complex topics that affect us all, knowing well that there will always be multiple viewpoints and beliefs to consider. We are accustomed to geographical separation, and thus learn to continue meaningful relationships across the globe with people we love.
We do our best to be a good neighbor to all, knowing that if we deny strangers out of fear or discomfort we ignore the possible reality that tomorrow might bring that state of being to us.
Lastly, history reveals that belonging is our military community’s heritage. Our members have fought and died for it. It has threatened to undo us through our greatest moments of exclusion, prejudice and shame. Still our records show an arc of dogged determination to learn from our mistakes and to pave a better path forward together for all who answer the call to serve. Our leadership in building community stands as a testament to the centuries of families who have served before us and gladly welcomes those to come.
Kallie Culver is a working mom, military spouse, volunteer addict and a writer. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Colorado, where she was selected to undertake a graduate thesis studying employment challenges for veterans and military spouses. She currently works as a data analyst, is the lead Key Spouse for her Air Force Pilot’s flying squadron, and is the co-lead for the recently launched Davis-Monthan In Gear Career Chapter in Arizona. Having started her blog Untold Stories About Us during a crisis of faith several years back, she is now a converted Catholic writing about her work, faith, motherhood and military life.