So, what do you see when you look at this photo? A bunch of men eating lunch, right? Maybe co-workers at a picnic, a ball team after a game? They are US Veterans from various wars sitting around the table with professional songwriters from Austin, Nashville and LA.
What they are doing here is talking to me about their strengths. I am the Executive Director of SongwritingWith:Soldiers and also a long-time Positive Psychology Consultant and Coach.
Though these veterans could easily be talking about the physical strength that powered them through tours of duty or the mental strengths they call upon daily, here they are discussing character strengths like Gratitude and Courage.
Who would imagine that men who endured the horrors of combat, who didn’t know each other the day before, would so quickly begin describing each other, and themselves, as grateful, kind, forgiving. But they were, and they meant it.
How did they so quickly get to this place of trust and openness?
Our program taps into the transformative, healing power of collaborative songwriting. We pair veterans and active-duty service members with our highly skilled and deeply empathetic professional songwriters to craft songs about combat and the return home. Military members and songwriters begin as strangers and leave as friends after sharing stories and creating songs together.
This particular workshop brought together nine veterans and three songwriters, and in the span of three short sessions, nine songs emerged. Following the final round of songwriting, we gathered for a “Next Steps” workshop over lunch. It is one thing to write a powerful song about what you have been through; it is another to know how to make the most of that experience, especially if it is based on painful memories. (More than one veteran shared stories of losing friends, feeling anger and regret, facing fear, yearning for home.) So, our workshops include life coaching focused on creating something new, moving forward with insights and creativity.
To me, one of the quickest ways to help people feel inspired and confident in moving forward is to highlight their strengths. My favorite tool is the VIA list of universally valued Character Strengths and Virtues developed by renowned psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson. Before handing out the list that day, I gave a brief overview of the study of happiness and well-being.
I explained that a handful of the world’s experts in the study of depression and mental illness realized that they were only focusing on half of the picture, studying “what goes wrong with us,” mental illness. It was time to study “what goes right with us,” mental wellness. They decided to study seriously what makes us happy and why it matters, as well as the effects of positive emotions, actions, relationships, etc., over the long haul.
As I spoke, heads nodded, eyes lit up. I’ve seen this reaction many times before when describing this fresh approach. Many of us fixate on our faults. These veterans were more than used to being hard on themselves on top of battling painful memories of past experiences.
“Think about the past two days,” I asked the group gathered around the table. “Remember all you can about the workshop – from the sunshine right now to the sound of the songwriter’s guitar as he played across from you. Remember the support you got and showed your fellow Veterans as you shared your stories. Remember searching, together, for just the right words for the song. Remember the people who brought in the lunch for us, and the random bursts of laughter we heard during the songwriting sessions.”
“This experience happened to you, too,” I said. “This happened to you. It is as real as anything else in your life.”
I got some good, hard stares, and growing smiles.
Next I handed out the list of strengths. “Look at this list,” I said. “Think about a song you wrote. Circle any of these strengths that you think come out in your song. Think about any you needed to use to write it.”
I figured we’d pause for while as they studied the list—and waited for someone else to speak first—but hands shot up immediately.
“I feel so much gratitude right now,” said a Purple Heart recipient, a man who had been shot in the face by a sniper. “I am so thankful for everyone here right now…”
“I see a lot of humility,” said another, a soft-spoken man. “A lot of fairness in taking time to listen and support each other…”
“It definitely took courage to get myself here…” said a man with skull rings on his fingers, tattoos crawling out of his neckline and sleeves. “… And perseverance!”
“There’s so much forgiveness in his story,” said another, turning to his new friend across the table.
My own strengths of “Capacity to Love” and “Gratitude” were cheering wildly. I knew the strengths list could generate good, constructive conversation, but I’d not expected such quick and genuine connections between these guys. Hearing them speak about strengths they had seen in each other was powerful and moving. I was filled with hope and optimism for them and for their “next steps” after we were long gone.
“These strengths are about who you are as a person,” I reiterated. “You used these strengths to make this good stuff happen here, these songs, these connections.”
I encouraged them to keep the list of strengths*, to refer to it often – for themselves and for those around them.
“You can help others see what’s right with them, too.” I said.
“Now, let’s go hear all the songs that you guys wrote!”
It was a lunch I will never forget. A wonderful and renewing experience that we all shared. I will take time to remember which strengths I brought to the occasion, and which were sparked by the courage and willingness of these veterans.
And, you, dear reader, this is where you come in. Listen to these powerful songs and discover the beautiful strengths that emerge. Notice how the emotions expressed in the songs speak for you too. Through our stories and songs, we strengthen one another and share our humanity.
Let these songs happen to you at www.songwritingwithsoldiers.org/music
* You can find the list of strengths and learn more about ways to use them at www.viacharacter.org