On President’s Day, Americans think about our nation’s first president — George Washington — whose birthday inspired the holiday. We see his face on ads for President’s Day sales, and may be inspired enough to look up some fun facts about him or his wife, Martha Washington (the first First Lady). But how often do we really pay attention to how their long-ago relationship can give us wisdom today?
George and Martha Washington deserve a closer look. They’re excellent examples of how strong well-being is connected with strong leadership. It was because of how well they took care of each other that they were able to lead others well.
Making Time to be Together Often
George and Martha made their marriage a top priority in their busy schedules. They chose to be in each other’s company whenever doing so was possible.
At home at Mount Vernon in Virginia, they ran the plantation as a team during the days and enjoyed rich conversations in the evenings. They often hosted friends and family members for suppers and balls, where they loved to dance together.
When George’s public service as a Revolutionary War general and first U.S. president required travel, Martha did her best to be present with him. She visited battlefields, moved to new homes, and went anywhere else she had to go — during a time when few roads or bridges had been built and travel was dangerous. People routinely got thrown off horses, robbed in stagecoaches, or caught on sinking ferry boats. But George made elaborate plans for Martha’s travels, sending friends to accompany and protect her every step of the way.
Sometimes the first couple couldn’t avoid being apart. Yet they still made time to reach out to each other through letters, pouring out their thoughts and feelings on paper to stay connected. Every week, they made time to stay in touch by writing.
Sharing Joy and Sorrow
When they had something to celebrate, they did so together. The Washingtons often took advantage of opportunities to host parties, surrounding themselves with people they loved. During George’s presidency, they invited people in their vast social network to supper feasts every Thursday at their home in New York. At Mount Vernon, they regularly welcomed guests for celebrations. They ate, laughed, danced, played cards, and held hands — enjoying each happy moment to the fullest, whenever they could.
When they were struggling with sorrow, they helped each other carry their burdens. George and Martha had to endure a crushing burden of grief together, dealing with the deaths of scores of family members — including children from Martha’s first marriage whom George had adopted. The first couple also faced the relentless pressures of developing a new nation. That stress took a toll on their health, causing illness that led to more sorrow.
The key to their well-being through it all was their commitment to support each other in any type of circumstances. George and Martha made a habit of checking in with each other about their feelings and sharing those emotions with each other honestly. Then they urged each other to nurture well-being practices in their lives. George sent people to visit Martha when she felt lonely, while Martha urged George to control his temper in stressful situations.
Encouraging Each Other to be Resilient
Building resilience skills was a top priority for the first couple, who faced many crises and challenges while working to build the United States and had to persevere in the face of all sorts of uncertainty about how their work would turn out.
Martha once wrote about resilience: “I am still determined to be cheerful and to be happy in whatever situation I may be, for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances; we carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us, in our minds, wherever we go.”
George and Martha were both wholeheartedly devoted to their faith, which fueled their resilience. Throughout their lives, they each spent significant amounts of time in prayer every day, and they worshiped God and served people often in their church communities.
They came to trust God so strongly that they could look beyond their circumstances to him in any situation — and rely on his strength to flow through them as they followed his guidance day by day. “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God,” George said.
So this President’s Day when you’re reminded of America’s founding couple, let their lives inspire you to do something to take care of your own well-being. Then reach out to someone else you care about, encouraging them to do the same. In the process, you’ll lead the way to something good, just like George and Martha did.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.