Three questions haunt and motivate me as a Chaplain (and as a human): Is it possible to be world class, and remain well? Is it possible to be world changing, and remain good? Is it possible to be average, and remain motivated?
In other words, what is the cost of excellence? How do we foster systems powerful enough to make needed change, but ethical enough to do so in a healthy way? How do we each tap into the motivation to pivot toward our better selves?
These are provocative ways of asking deeper, more complex questions: How can we do good and remain well within complex systems? How can we express our humanity, our distinct engagement with consciousness, in productive and healthy ways?
Continuing years of chaplaincy work, I have the privilege to serve military personnel both as a Risk Reduction Coordinator and as a Chaplain. It strikes me that these two positions seek similar goals: to increase readiness for their missions through their sense of well-being by connecting them to their values and source of community connection and meaning. I help them resolve internal dissonance as they face external challenges, all while working within complex and problematic systems, systems that are among the most intense and rigorous in existence.
Wellness in the military presents complex challenges and paradoxes. I’m struck by the fact that even though the military is primarily an organization of defense, it is so big and complex that it has to address the question of human thriving, as well as every other aspect of human experience. Service members and veterans experience trauma in part because of what they go through and what they are asked to do (again, very complex issues and systems), but also because of how distinct the military is. There is nothing like it, for better and worse.
At the same time, there is a simplicity in how we show up for each other. I joke that the role of a Chaplain is to do nothing calmly in crisis, but that is a reasonable description of the clinical term “ministry of non-anxious presence.” I’ve learned that the lightest possible touch, the minimal effective intervention is almost always best. Military Chaplains train rigorously to keep others company in extreme environments. Some of my best conversations about life have been while carrying a heavy pack in the Utah desert, walking alongside others.
Over the past seven years, I have served as a Chaplain in multiple extreme environments: hospice and hospital, prison and law enforcement, veteran, and military. Chaplaincy deals with challenges in all contexts, where experts must grapple quickly and consistently with matters of life and death, stress and trauma, urgent decisions and consequences, or patients who are just trying to survive.
All this is true, but from the inside, I have learned that what is true at the extremes of life is true in our daily life. It’s just that at the extremes, everything becomes more clear. Often what we think of as problems in the military or law enforcement, prison or health care, are simply problems of society at large, illuminated by the intensity of these extreme environments.
I’m fascinated by the interplay of external and internal challenges, external and internal resources. I am especially interested in how our mindset, perspective, and existential approach to challenges changes the way we experience them. A key part of my role as Risk Reduction Coordinator is to help people pivot from unhealthy to healthy coping behaviors in order to become an ally to their better selves.
As a member of Community and Family Services, I’m grateful to work closely with therapists and Social Workers in my roles. Together we address too-common problems of self-harm, including suicidal ideation and substance abuse. Together we move past these ineffective solutions people in our care sometimes use to address deeper problems. Whether as a Chaplain and the Risk Reduction Coordinator, I get to help those in my care identify and address those underlying issues.
It is important to remember that we are not only biological and social creatures, but also existential creatures. As best as we can tell, humans are the only animals who can imagine things that don’t exist in the physical world, then use these fictions to change the world. This reminder is vital when we address human suffering. When someone’s back hurts, that is physical pain. Judgments about that pain are largely social. What that pain means and how it impacts someone’s identity and purpose is existential.
All of this pain is real and deserves to be respected (not respecting social and existential pain is ironically a social reality). That said, working at the level of interpretation of experience means that we have the power to shift our interpretation and mindset. The way that we think about our experiences is literally a matter of life and death. I have been deeply inspired talking to individuals who have been betrayed and disappointed, and who take it in stride by understanding systems and human nature. It’s just the way things are, they say, and continue to focus on doing the good they can. “Spend the currency of pain and consequence” is another mantra that fits the military well. We can’t change what happened, but we can learn from it and use it to train ourselves and others so that things go better in the future.
In a word, our interpretive framework can be called our spirituality. There are other words humanists might prefer, which is why I’ve been using the term existential, but spirituality is probably the most common word for what we are talking about. The most recent Army holistic health and fitness manual contains a new section on Spiritual Readiness:
The spiritual readiness domain is inclusive and universally vital to all personnel no matter their background, philosophy, or religion. It applies to both religious and non-religious persons and concepts… Spirituality is often described as a sense of connection that gives meaning and purpose to a person’s life. The spiritual dimension applies to all people, whether religious or non-religious. Identifying one’s purpose, core values, beliefs, identity, and life vision defines the spiritual dimension. These elements, which define the essence of a person, enable one to build inner strength, make meaning of experiences, behave ethically, persevere through challenges, and be resilient when faced with adversity. An individual’s spirituality draws upon parts of personal, philosophical, psychological, and religious teachings or beliefs, and forms the basis of their character… Understanding the general spiritual readiness enables leaders to encourage personal spiritual readiness in a climate where mutual respect and dignity encourage dialogue, foster team cohesion, and enable healthy free exercise of religion or no religion by all personnel. (FM 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness, 10-2).
I appreciate how this Army manual breaks spirituality down into its components and functioning, which is precisely what I do as a Humanist Chaplain. And that is precisely the invitation for each of us as humanists. How do we show up to the challenges of our own lives? What are our values? What gives us meaning? What is our purpose? And above all, we can respect ourselves by taking seriously all of our values, all of our goals, all of our interests. We can design a life worth living, then develop a practice that enables us to sustain that life. We can train to the level of our lives.
Again, these skills, essential for emergencies and experts, also prove vital for all of us in our day to day lives. I feel called to serve those whose service challenges their humanity, and in so doing, practice principles to help anyone human better.
“I have been deeply moved by the hunger I have seen for non-religious spiritual care among the soldiers I serve.”
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