Mantras and the military family

July 01, 2019

By: Libby Alders, MS*

Mottos and mantras are fascinating. Admittedly though, I geek out quickly when it comes to business and/or philosophical concepts, so creating a mantra (word or phrase that shows your thoughts or beliefs about something) is ABSOLUTELY my idea of a great Friday night.

I first learned about mottos and mantras back in college—longer ago than I care to admit. In business classes, I learned about the importance of mottos for everything from marketing slogans to building organizational buy-in and camaraderie among employees. So, to me, mottos can be powerful but tend to stay more on the surface.

In my religion and philosophy courses, mantras were different from mottos. I think mantras reach deep for deeply held core values—those hard-line beliefs and values that hold steady during good times and bad. Mantras call you back to your foundation. Perhaps you’re career-oriented, so a “seize the day”-type mantra really resonates with you. Or maybe you’re a “family first” person, so your mantra is more about “love your family.” Maybe it’s a combo? That’s what I love about mantras: They help you think through what matters and then remind you of that during the toughest times.

Mantras popped up when my husband and I were talking one night about how stressful military life can be, especially when combined with other things such as school, family, and medical crises (there’s always something). We talked about the answer seems to always be “do more yoga,” which can be helpful, but it wasn’t working for us. My husband joked that if we had a yoga mantra, it would be “embrace the pain.”

That got me thinking on what our family mantra would be, and I thought maybe we could find a way to spin it into a positive saying. After all, I knew from my research that mantras can really help re-frame negative thoughts during stressful periods. So, I pulled out my notes from my Latin coursework (chaplains like me tend to have ancient-language materials on hand) and thought about some possible sayings. I landed on one that roughly translates as “Nothing without great labor.”

Why this? Well, both my husband and I choose goals that are worthwhile but very hard. That, or we over-complicate everything. Whether it’s my pursuit of a PhD and academic career or his pursuit of a 30-year career in SOF, we like challenges. And with challenges come great demands.

A few weeks after talking about how yoga wasn’t the answer for us, I brought up the idea of having a family mantra (because I randomly remembered it) and maybe turning it into a full family crest. That way, no matter how far apart we are—or how stressed we become—we can recall the mantra, so the distance and stress feel manageable. I thought he’d chuckle and say, “No way, that sounds like psychobabble.”

Imagine my surprise when he pulled out a sketchbook full of crest designs!

So, now we have the “Nothing without great labor” mantra and a crest of an oak tree to remind us stress and struggle are temporary, and that everything great in life is worth working toward. For two people who are career-driven and in high-stress jobs, it’s a great reminder on tough days of the larger picture and our overall goal in life: to serve and leave the world a little better than we found it.

We enjoyed creating our family mantra. It helped us revisit discussions about what we wanted in life and make sure we were still on track with things. I highly recommend it for everyone! Have a good time with it, think about sayings or jokes that seem to be repeated quite often in your family, and turn them into something worthwhile. 

Reach out to local artists too. We found a wood carving class, where we not only learned a new skill but were able to carve our family crest. It’s a chance in military life, with all of its structure and chaos, to have some fun.

------------------------------------------- About Author --------------------------------------------------
Libby Alders, of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, is a Research Associate for the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences or the United States Department of Defense.

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