Making New Footprints: Religion and Resilience

“There are no atheists in a foxhole.” – Unknown Author

As I sat in church today (Easter Sunday), in serious discomfort from a flare-up of my disabilities, I was yet again reminded of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:

“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

And, my humor being what it is, I asked God yet again, “I don’t mind a thorn, God, but did you have to give me the whole thorn bush?” He didn’t answer right away.

At times like this, when I’m challenged with a good deal of physical pain, I think about the poem “Footprints in the Sand.” (which I have on my bible cover). The poem is a wonderful allegory about God carrying us during our most challenging times, even when we feel that we are walking alone. The premise of the allegory is that we are never far from God, or perhaps better stated: God is never far from us.

Though I struggle to tell the testimonial to this day, there were moments in combat where the only explanation for my miraculous survival of multiple close calls is that God shielded and carried me to a place of safety where He gently set me down. This perspective is not uncommon for combat wounded veterans. As one of my dissertation research subjects described a close brush with death from an improvised explosive device (IED): “The windshield was shattered…the vehicle shredded…and [surviving with only minor wounds] I was like “How?” I only have a burn mark and some cuts on my face. That’s it. That’s how I know there’s a God or somebody higher.” For some Wounded Warriors, their healing only begins when they acknowledge the injury and begin connecting with spirituality. For a medic struggling to cope with severe post-traumatic stress (PTS), her relationship with God served as the turning point in her recovery: “I said, “Nothing is wrong with me; I’m fine, I’m okay.” But I really wasn’t and I think that it [getting wounded] really opened up my relationship with God; healing my spirit, my soul, that was already kind of broken.”

Too often we stop our reflection there, when God carried us through our trials. But what happens when God sets us back down so that we may walk with Him once again? That is the point where resilience takes effect; those first tentative steps as we emerge from our adversity as a new person, new leader, or new organization. For those who emerge scarred from surviving a life-or-death existential struggle, the first steps are often the most difficult as we adjust to a new gait and pace (i.e., life with disability). Resilience is finding a renewed sense of purpose and embracing and putting to work the blessing of newfound wisdom and perspective.

There is a school of leadership thought, the Crucibles of Leadership, which purports to describe the origins of leadership. Crucible leaders are those authentic leaders who underwent a heroic struggle or overcame a series of transformative experiences – often with life-or-death possibilities – that fundamentally altered their lives, reshaped their character, and led them to new perspectives on life and leadership. There are four traits common to crucible leaders: adaptive capacity; the ability to engage others in a shared vision; a distinctive voice; and a deep, unshakeable sense of integrity and adherence to their core values.

Focusing on the crucible leadership tenet of unshakeable integrity and core values, for those crucible leaders who underwent significant trauma (including combat trauma), religion or spirituality often serves as the lodestone for their post-trauma moral compass as leaders. In my exploration of the Crucibles of Leadership for Wounded Warriors, 70 percent of my research subjects described God’s involvement in their survival, healing, and post-trauma lives.

Religion provided the meaning, wisdom, and comfort to help these warriors make sense of their experiences and to better carry the lifelong scars of their trauma. Further, the deeply personal relationship with God that develops for crucible leaders begins to manifest itself into their daily lives and leadership approach. Discussing whether he feels lucky, one WW said, “I don’t think it’s lucky. I have a Christian background and it’s part of my purpose in life. I don’t know what may bring tomorrow, but I have a God that says don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, just believe in what He gives me today. Luck is just a term. Anybody can have luck. You know what I’m saying? I’m blessed beyond measures.”

When God blesses you with surviving a life-or-death challenge, how do you respond when your feet touch the sand and you begin to walk again? You can be a stubborn toddler who refuses to hold your father’s hand, which – as many of us know – leads to straying from the path we should walk and thus having to be carried yet again. Or you can reach your hand up for help, with all of the humility that requires, and receive the opportunity to become closer to God and stay on the path that He wants you to take. As noted by Pastor Sam Storms, our reaction to adversity is possibly the greatest gauge of our maturity in our faith as Christians. In my case, and in the case of many other Wounded Warrior Christians I know, the answer is that we are blessed to have a second chance in life; a chance to serve His purpose and reflect His light. When people tell me that their adversity pales in comparison to my experiences, I make it a point to address their minimalization of their adversity. It is not the nature or the severity of the adversity that matters; rather, what matters is how you persevere through the adversity (i.e., resilience) and put those life lessons to work in a positive, meaningful way. For me, while I struggled with my injuries like so many other Wounded Warriors, God blessed me with the steadying hand of wonderful mentors and an amazing family, and He provided me with the opportunity to advocate for other Wounded Warriors.

As the sermon was ending today, I think God answered my earlier question about the thorn bush. As I slowly and agonizingly stood to my feet, my 12-year old son looked at me, smiled, put his arm around me and rubbed my back. I sobbed a bit then as it occurred to me how blessed I am that God carried me home to a loving family. It was as if through my son’s kind gesture, God answered me: “You are most welcome, son.”

References

Andrews, D. R. (2016, October 19). Exploring the Crucibles of Leadership for Wounded Warriors. Colorado Technical University: ProQuest.

Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J. (2002). The Crucibles of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 39-45.

Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J. (2007). Leading for a lifetime: How defining moments shape the leaders of today and tomorrow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Fishback Powers, M. (2010). Footprints in the Sand. Retrieved from Only the Bible: https://www.onlythebible.com/Poems/Footprints-in-the-Sand-Poem.html

Storms, S. C. (2010). A Sincere and Pure Devotion to Christ: 100 Daily Meditations on 2 Corinthians. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic Leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 89-126.

Williams, J. W., & Allen, S. (2015). Trauma-inspired prosocial leadership development. Journal of Leadership Education, 86-103.