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Service Members & Self Compassion

“Could have been worse.” That and maybe the clench of a jaw has ended more than a few stories I’ve heard from service members over the years.

Enough that I once exclaimed to a veteran who spent over twenty years on active duty, a survivor of at least half a dozen combat deployments, and a repeat user of the phrase: “What is that—’could have been worse’—some kind of unofficial motto of the United States military?”

“No,” he said, straight-faced, and after a considerable pause. “The unofficial motto is ‘How many soldiers can you fit in a Humvee?’”

“One more.”

“That’s a pretty good joke,” I said.

And you might’ve already guessed what came next.

“Could have been worse.”

Part of training for any high-level performance does in fact necessitate careful consideration of worst-case scenarios. Service members, elite athletes, even performing artists often integrate worst-case scenarios into training so that effective responses to the nearly unimaginable become routine and fluid, so that body and mind are prepared for optimal awareness rather than flooded with panic. Get enough worst-case scenario training, and it’s easy to see how any situation, no matter the pain it produces, could have—truly—been worse.

This can be an extremely valuable perspective—one that builds mental agility and resilience and non-attachment to one’s own emotions and experiences. I see great humility among those who use it—something along the lines of what Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called a “humble courage,” a way of being he contrasted to the kind of “sacrificial heroism” or self-proclaimed martyrdoms I know I’ve caught myself narrativizing.

I’ve also heard it said—by some who have suffered beyond measure—that all suffering can be born so long as it is never acknowledged. As soon as you start paying attention to the pain, they say, that’s when you’ll no longer be able to bear it.

I don’t want to suggest that science must always and necessarily supplant the wisdom of lived experience. But research increasingly shows that self-compassion—or the capacity to be as kind and loving towards ourselves as we might be toward a beloved child or partner or friend when we ourselves are suffering (in contrast to ignoring our pain or beating ourselves up with self-criticism)—can profoundly improve our physical, mental, and emotional well-being (Neff 2021, 2011; Brach 2020, 2003).

Self-compassion doesn’t have to mean recounting the suffering or putting the pain into words. And acknowledging that hurt is there need not mean that the hurt will overwhelm you.

Acknowledging that hurt is there also does not mean having to let go of the awareness that things “could have been worse.” It does not mean you’ve lofted your own pain above that of others.

Kierkegaard uses the example of the Old Testament story of Abraham, who was asked by God to sacrifice his only beloved son. What must that have felt like, Kierkegaard asks, walking up the mountain preparing to kill one’s own child? To whom could Abraham have explained himself and his faith throughout this truly worst-case scenario? Who would understand? (The answer, says Kierkegaard, is no one. Words would never do.)

What makes Abraham a hero—a “knight of faith”—writes Kierkegaard, is not that he was willing to undertake the worst, but that he had the capacity to be astonished by something greater than himself.

I see a lot of veterans who know all too deeply the distress of others, and who, when it comes to those others’ pain, can, like Abraham “witness the tears and forget nothing.” This Veterans’ Day and beyond, we’re here to support anyone who’s ready to offer such compassion to themselves.

Brach, T. (2020). Radical Compassion. NY: Penguin.

Kierkegaard, S. (1843). Fear and Trembling. <>.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.

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