Resiliency and Pastoral Care

Navigating Painful Memories and Experiences

Resiliency is a hot topic in many circles. There is no more important place to raise the issue than in the military. Men and women can be put in horrific situations and have to navigate painful memories and experiences. The U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) developed a program centered on resiliency known as the Operational Stress Control (OSC) and also known as the Combat and Operational Stress Control (COSC). It looked at stress as a continuum and sought to develop the individual, leaders and care providers with tools to manage stress. There are five key leadership functions. First, strengthen or build capacity to handle stress at both the individual and unit level. Second, mitigate by managing and removing unnecessary stressors. Third, identify those who need help. Forth, treat them at the right time with the right level of care. Finally, seek to reintegrate the person into a fully functional and contributing member of the team. This program was implemented in both the Navy and the Marine Corps.

I loved it. I would often joke that Navy Medicine had finally caught up with the Church. This article will examine why I believe this.

The Concept of Overcoming

At the heart of resiliency is the idea of overcoming. It focuses on not allowing your circumstances to define you. That is the story of Easter. Jesus faces the cross, suffers and dies. That is not the end of the story. He overcomes and conquers both sin and death. Those who followed after Him wrote the New Testament from a perspective that anything we deal with here is only temporary.

In my counseling I often use two passages. The first is Romans 5:3-5 which says we can rejoice in suffering because it will produce perseverance which reveals our character and ultimately grounds us in our hope. The way I have paraphrased this verse I believe is in keeping with the original Greek. There is depth in the passage by looking at how the Apostle Paul wrote it. The second passage is James 1:2-4. James says we should consider it pure joy when we face trials because they will develop our perseverance that will develop a deep level of maturity not lacking anything. If you look at the historical context James was writing it was most likely just after many were scattered from Jerusalem and potentially lost everything (Acts 8:1). I often share that for the Christian life is a win-win situation. When bad things do not happen, it is a win. When bad things do happen, it is also a win because we have the opportunity to develop perseverance and depth. We can become stronger better people. When we consider what both Paul and James faced, it only adds additional depth to this truth.

There is a practical truth to this but there is also a spiritual truth. On the practical side we see that people who have a good perspective can become stronger. This is at the heart of much of the psychological literature on resiliency. As Christians we add an additional layer of depth. We see the first followers of Jesus struggle. We also see them have joy and peace. It is an incredible encouragement. They did this because they looked to God. They relied on the Holy Spirit to give them strength. They had Jesus live out how to face suffering. Jesus warned them that if he suffered, they would suffer. They knew one day Jesus would return. There is a richness in this reality and it is all at our fingertips.

From a counseling perspective this was great. As I talked with Marines and Sailors I would ask if they had a particular faith perspective. If they did not or if they had a perspective other than Christian I could use the material on resiliency developed by BUMED and talk in general terms about ideas around perspective and overcoming. If they came from a Christian perspective then I would talk very specifically about the hope they could have.

I will add a caveat to this discussion. I have the advantage of working with a continuum of care providers. I have access to counseling services and mental health services that I can refer people to. While I believe we can overcome, I also run into situations in which a person is at a place that they need more than the pastoral counseling I can provide. I believe we all should know our limitations and know when we are in over our heads.

When I believe it is within my capacity to help an individual, I often start by encouraging them to see that as humans we have been given incredible capacity. We often will talk about stories of people who have overcome difficult situations. Then, I often insert a challenge. I ask them to think of a person they really respect. I let them choose between a historical person or someone they personally know. Once they have picked the person I ask them if that person ever had a difficult situation in their life. I have yet to have anyone say the person they picked did not have a difficult situation. I then build the bridge that part of the reason they can respect that person is because they developed a level of depth by going through difficulties. It is very powerful and makes the idea of overcoming tangible.

OSC does seek to reintegrate the individual who has experienced a stress injury. Again, the Christian understanding of redemption and the ability of those who have failed being reinstated is powerful. I can talk about the Apostle Peter completely blowing it on the night of Jesus’ crucifixion by denying he even knew Jesus. Who is leading the Church at the beginning of Acts? Peter. I believe I can make a strong case God is more focused on us and our future and already dealt with our past. It is incredibly useful in helping a person overcome the stigma of feeling like they “broke” and are now a failure.

In the military environment I have used this approach to when talking to individuals about operational tempo, stressful inspections, personal issues from either relationships or their past and a number of personal stressors they are dealing with. I hope BUMED will continue to develop their program. It would be nice for them to keep up with what the Church has been teaching for two thousand years.

Chaplain Paul Armstrong
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