The Army’s New Spiritual Soldier

April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

When we picture boot camp, we think of yelling and push-ups, long marches and more yelling and… spiritual training?  With the army’s new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, (CSF), spiritual fitness may become just as important as all those push-ups.  The army wants motivated, resilient, and morally-grounded soldiers, so they’ve paid heed to the research linking spirituality with health.  By teaming up with Ken Pargament  and the Positive Psychology Center at UPenn, they’ve created a program to build strong spirits and strong bodies.

As a secular institution, the army adopting spirituality poses a unique set of problems.  The Department of Defense can’t rate spirituality in terms of absolute truth or impose a particular tradition.  So instead they’ve tried to distill a spirituality free from any tradition that will still yield all the benefits: a purely pragmatic spirituality.

The army desperately needs these benefits.  Soldiers face some of the most stressful conditions on earth: the persistent threat of danger, the abrupt eruptions of violence, watching friends die and facing permanent injury.  Any of these would overwhelm even the most resilient person.  And it shows: rates of PTSD and suicides are growing  to the point that there are more than 6,500 veteran suicides each year.  This is staggering.  However out of place it might seem, spirituality may be the key to mitigating these numbers.

Over the past decades research has repeatedly shown the positive effects of spirituality.  Strong spirituality correlates with stronger immune systems, better heart health, and more resilience after illness among many other benefits.  The research is more nuanced than this, but the general trend links strong spirituality with health.  These are the benefits the army’s trying to tap into, but is a purely pragmatic spirituality a chimera?

If it’s possible, Ken Pargament would know how to create it.  In his paper on the Army’s Spiritual Fitness program spirituality is defined as “the journey people take to discover and realize their essential selves and higher order aspirations.”  This highly individualized definition doesn’t mention the sacred dimension we typically associate with spirituality.  But it does capture the individual growth and self knowledge essential to spirituality.  The question becomes: how is this any different than character development?  And if it’s not, why call it “spirituality”?

One reason is apparent in Officer Fairholm’s statement about spirit: “It creates our mindset, defines our values, determines our actions, and predicts our behavior.”  The human spirit, even divested of sacredness, is an incredibly powerful motivating and influencing force.  The army hopes to tap into this power to create more resilient warriors.

While they’re silent about the sacred, the army is not neutral when it comes to the “higher-order aspirations.”  The Warrior Ethos  in particular sets out these core values: “Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.”  So the army is in a difficult position as they go about building spiritual fitness: are they instilling the Warrior Ethos or helping people discover their own?

Regardless of this dilemma, any amount that the army is able to instill a strong human spirit is a positive step.  Not only is spirituality a tremendous motivating force it could make the difference in whether stress leads to growth or decline.  Beyond psychological and physiological benefits, this strong moral grounding would help soldiers make life and death decisions under the chaotic pressure of war.

The prime example of this is Officer Hugh Thompson.  While in Vietnam, Officer Thompson witnessed Americans soldiers killing Vietnamese civilians in My Lai.  Against enormous cultural pressure and potential court marshal, he landed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians and ordered his gunner “to open fire on the American soldiers if they continued to shoot the civilians.  Thompson’s courage undoubtedly came from a strong moral grounding.  But the very fact that he had to act shows what can happen as war fractures a soldier’s sense of morality and order.  Through the spiritual training the army is hoping to ground soldiers in values to withstand the inherently chaotic and stressful environment of war.

So, building spiritual fitness makes sense as a way to mitigate the traumatic effects of war.  But how do you strengthen someone’s spirit in an entirely secular setting?

The task is given to Master Resilience Trainers through a training program connected to UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center.  These trainers will guide soldiers through a series of modules designed to develop and strengthen their spirit.  The modules are broken into three tiers.

The first tier helps soldiers engage their core values and beliefs.  This stage of self-knowledge is meant to awaken the human-spirit.  Each module invites the soldier’s reflection by prompting them with past stories of soldiers’ valor and strength.  During reflection, soldiers are encouraged to set out their values and beliefs and imagine how these values might play out in action.

Then, having discovered their spirit, the second tier exposes soldiers to a wide array of resources to help them cultivate that spirit.  In particular this tier helps soldiers become aware of how spirituality can help them cope with and overcome difficult situations.  After seeing the importance of spirituality, soldiers are introduced to a variety of ways to engage spiritually: ranging from meditation to mentors, music, reading or nature.

The third tier is set to cultivate an appreciation of the human spirit in others.  This goal seems more than a bit ironic, and the irony only deepens, because this tier is still in development.  But it fits with the social and familial pillars of the CSF program.  Spirituality is a new component to the army’s vision of a strong soldier, but community support has always played an essential role in a motivated, resilient, morally-grounded soldier.

Since the program is relatively new, we’re left with more questions than answers.  How will soldiers respond to spiritual training?  Will this response vary by subgroups within the army?  Is there a place for chaplains in the spiritual fitness program?  And most importantly: will it work, will the program mitigate posttraumatic stress and suicides?

But aside from pragmatic questions, the army’s incorporation of spirituality opens up a host of other questions.  How is this different than character development?  Is it possible to have a spirituality freed from any tradition? Desirable?  What about spiritual experiences?  If Christians experience the love of Christ, and Hindus encounter the deep profundity of Dharma, what would the secular spiritual soldier experience?

And the biggest question, the one that burns every time I read this piece: Is a spirituality that doesn’t include compassion and non-violence worthy of the name?  My answer is no.  So, I have a hard time resolving the dissonance of an institution devoted to violence trying to use something inherently non-violent.  I’m all for the army doing what it can to prevent the horrors of posttraumatic stress and suicide.  I want soldiers to be healthy and return home resilient and happy.  But rather than mitigate the problem, perhaps we should look at its cause.  I believe that doing so would lead to a greater reform than the army’s seemingly radical incorporation of spirituality.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religiosity

April 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

The religion of brickyard Gary & the religion of MLK

Poor Gary.  We all know these guys, and yes, they are always guys.   They find the busiest hub of campus at the busiest time of day.  They pace around in boring suits, Bible in hand, and spew hellfire all over the place.  This hateful man would condemn just about anything that moved.  And his hate was contagious.  If I sat there long enough, I’d also be fuming, but not at the girls who made Gary a little too excited and Gary’s god angry.

It takes a heart as deep as MLK to not be angry at Gary.  MLK was able to respond to tremendous rage and fear with love.  Watch him and you’ll begin to feel how extraordinary this is.  And it cannot be denied that religion played an essential role in this response.

Since my goal is to parse and understand the helpful parts of religion, the enormous rift between Gary and MLK seems like an appropriate gap to explore.  Really, to spend any time with religion, and in this world, requires coming up against this difference.

The difference could be described by their different pictures of God or people or salvation, but that explanation is more of a description.  I want to know why.  Why does religion stoke some people’s fear and other’s love?

In the forties and fifties there was a slew of research linking religiosity and prejudice.  Study after study showed that regular churchgoers were more intolerant of minority groups.  This challenged deeply held assumptions, so they’d do another study and only strengthen the connection.

I don’t say this to condemn religiosity or going to church.  Christopher Hitchens and the other three horsemen do a good enough job of that (with up-to-date stats which tell the same story).

So, studies are linking religion and prejudice, but at the same time people saw religion leveraging tremendous positive change for the civil rights movement.  This dissonance, the same difference between Gary and MLK, led psychologists such as W. C. Wilson and G. W. Allport, to search for a deeper cause.

They did so by developing a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity.

The intrinsically religious see religion as valuable unto itself.  Instead of religion serving another motivation, religion provides the master motivation.  In other words, the intrinsically religious try to order their life by their creed, not the other way around.

The extrinsically religious go to church with another end in mind (although likely subconscious).  It may be making that new business connection or finding a spouse.  Or it could be psychological security, solace or self-justification.

These two positions lead people to approach religion in dramatically different ways.  And the distinction revealed a deeper connection than the simple correlation between religion and prejudice.  It was not the religious who were intolerant, it was the extrinsically religious.

This study is old and contains many issues.  Normally I try to stay a little more contemporary.  But the contemporary studies I read keep referring to this distinction.

It’s one of many standards that parse the different people that are too easily grouped together under the same umbrella of religious.  Other standards include the wider difference between liberal and conservative mindsets.  Or more specifically, distinguishing between prayers of gratitude and prayers of petition (i.e. God please give me…).  Turns out, petitions are detrimental to your health.

Each of these distinctions help nuance our understanding of religion and spirituality.  More importantly, they shift our focus from people’s behavior to the worldviews that motivate those actions.  Allport himself was hesitant to say that intrinsic/extrinsic religiosity actually caused prejudice.  Instead, underlying personalities cause the link: “a life that is dependent on the supports of extrinsic religion is likely to be dependent on the supports of prejudice.”

As I am trying to grasp what spirituality is and why it is helpful, these distinctions are incredibly illuminating.  More important they help us occupy each other’s worldview.  Understanding is an antidote for viral hate.  If I can grasp Gary’s mindset, even just a little bit, then there will be a little less hate on the planet.  To me, that seems intrinsically useful.

Responding to Tragedies

April 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bad things happen to everyone: from failed projects to lost jobs; broken bones to cancer; loved ones die.  This was Buddha’s first noble truth: life is dukkha or suffering.  But, we respond to suffering in a variety of ways.  For religious believers these tragic events can make or break their faith.  In times of tragedy, some find comfort in their faith.  Others, unable to reconcile a good God doing bad things, reject their faith.  And, there is a spectrum of responses in-between.   But, what makes us react these different ways?

A couple of years ago, a dear childhood friend lost his little brother.  His brother, otherwise perfectly healthy, dropped dead one day while playing baseball.  For me, this loss of a young, vibrant life is the epitome of tragedy.  Afterwards, my friend’s mother fell into a deep depression that remains unresolved.  But, my friend admirably carries both his grief and his faith.  This question, of how we react to tragedy, is not mere intellectual curiosity.  It bears deep implications for how we live.  This means that any study into the cause of our responses is facing a monumental task.

New research out of Seattle Pacific University  looks at how our “cognitive flexibility” impacts our response.  Cognitive flexibility is a way of describing the scope of our awareness.  If you can imagine many different ways to cope with a situation then you likely have high cognitive flexibility.  If I can’t imagine your point of view, then I need to do a little more cognitive stretching.

Trauma, understandably, has a negative effect on cognitive flexibility.  A variety of studies have described the black-and-white, absolutistic, thinking common in people with PTSD.  While major life events can affect our cognitive flexibility, this flexibility can also impact our lives.  Other research shows that a high cognitive flexibility makes it easier to handle disagreements in relationships and to forgive others.

So, if cognitive flexibility helps us forgive others, then it would make sense that it also helps people forgive God after a hurricane wrecks their home.  But, whether it is correlated or causal isn’t so clear.  Russell McCann and Marcia Webb, Clinical Psychologists from SPU, set out to disentangle the complex knot of how traumatic events affect our view of God.

They gave their participants three surveys.  The first measured the presence of PTSD symptoms: intrusive memories of the trauma,; numbness or avoidance; or hyperarousal- being jumpy or easily startled.  It’s important to remember that they simply measured symptoms not the nature of the trauma itself.

The second survey measured cognitive flexibility.  And they finally measured how people relate to God with the aptly (and humorously) named “Suffering with God Scale.”  From this third survey McCann and Webb found two primary ways people react to God after a traumatic event: they either “endure” or they “struggle” with God.

“Enduring” is sticking with your faith through the difficulty.  It was measured with statements like “My faith is strengthened through hard times.”  “Struggling” on the other hand, means taking God to task or abandoning the schmuck altogether.  Struggling was rated by people’s anger towards God or difficulty forgiving.

After taking these three measures, they ran a variety of statistical analyses to look for any relationships.  A couple of relationships emerged, but even these relationships were not clean and crisp.

As expected, the more traumatic symptoms people had, the more likely they were to struggle with God.  But, those with higher cognitive flexibility struggled less.  So, regardless of flexibility, tragedies will likely make you angry with God, but the more flexible you are, the less pissed you’ll be at God after a crisis.

There seemed to be a threshold in how cognitive flexibility affected enduring.  Low flexibility led one to stick with God less as traumatic symptoms increase.  But, people with medium and high flexibility endured more.  So if you can imagine alternatives and handle paradox you are more likely to find comfort in your faith in spite of tragedies.

In many ways this study simply confirmed expectations: tragedies led us to question God and the more imaginative we are, the less likely we are to be shook by those tragedies.  But, when I think of my friend and his mother, the results feel unsatisfying.  Am I simply to say “oh, she’s just depressed because of low cognitive flexibility.”  Forget anger towards God, I’d have some rightly earned anger coming at me!

In the light of real suffering the results feel a bit trivial.  But, I imagine this is because the question is so personal and so complex.  We want a simply solution, but the Gordian Knot of suffering is too tangled for easy answers.

Trauma is too multifaceted to be measured by a single standard.  You may be able to trace symptoms, as this study did, but this doesn’t distinguish between the variety of trauma.  Losing a loved one, being sexually assaulted and handling the terror of war are all incredibly different traumas.  No doubt, each event will affect how we see the sacred, but these effects will be dramatically different, even if the symptoms are similar.

How we relate to the sacred, is also a very complex relationship.  Struggle could mean the intense spiritual crucible of doubt that challenges and transforms ideas of the sacred.  Or, it could simply mean being pissed at God.  Enduring could mean the persistence of Mother Teresa’s belief during a dark night of the soul, or the simple steady acceptance that doesn’t engage doubt.  This study completely leaves out atheists, whose response to suffering must be taken into account.

The knot of suffering is made of many threads.  And they are tangled beyond any simple solution.  Even though McCann and Webb didn’t find a clear and clean relationship, they slightly loosened the problem and showed how one thread, cognitive flexibility, is bound up in the mess.  While the results may not be the easy answer we crave, every small unraveling of the knot is helpful.

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