Moral Character and Resiliency

There is a strong relationship between moral character and human resiliency.

In the mental health arena, clinicians are starting to recognize the negative side of that relationship in veterans of military conflict. When soldiers violate their own sense of right and wrong, they can experience symptoms that have previously been attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While the study of “moral injury” deserves a more thorough discussion, it is sufficient at this point, I think, to state the obvious: guilt and shame are as destructive as fear, misery and trauma.

There is also a positive side to this relationship between moral character and resiliency. Commitment to a strong, comprehensive set of values can help people endure suffering and bounce back.

The life of the Christian apostle Paul illustrates this relationship. At various times, Paul was imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, chased out of town and exposed to the very real dangers of ancient travel. He reports that he often went without sleep, sustenance and shelter. He faced sometimes violent opposition from his coreligionists, from townspeople and from political authorities. He felt a heavy burden for the churches he founded and responsible for the fate of those who responded to his message. He had some sort of physical illness that caused him pain, and he had no dependable source of income. Despite the fear, trauma and misery that characterized his life, Paul could write:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:12-13

Paul might have said, in the immortal words of Chumbawamba, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

Even if you don’t share Paul’s opinion about the source of strength, having a strong moral center – one that not only defines right and wrong but that also creates a sense of purpose or mission in life – is a significant factor in resiliency. Everything around you may be going to hell in a hand basket, but in the core of your being you are undeterred.

Build It: The Content of Your Character

In his famous “I have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. looked forward to the day when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Where do we get the content of our character? Soldiers draw at least some of it from Army sources. Those who lead Soldiers can’t avoid the moral framework for leadership laid out in law, regulation and doctrine. The Army’s leadership manuals (ADP 6-22 and ADRP 6-22), for example, describe a leader’s character with reference to soldier codes like the seven Army Values, the Warrior Ethos, the Soldier’s Creed and the Soldier’s Rules. The doctrine also describes a leader’s character with the words “empathy” and “discipline.” Leaders value people. Their “walk” matches their “talk.”

As important as these traits are, I think there must be more to a mature moral framework than this rather sparse list entails. You can’t just go to the Central Issue Facility and get your character issued like you do your cold weather gear. Your character needs deeper roots that the Army can give you.

My yard on the west side of San Antonio sits on top of a large rock formation. In some areas, the soil is very shallow and the roots cannot push very deep into the ground. When the rain was plentiful and the temperatures were moderate, the entire yard was lush and green. Then, when the drought came and the temperatures rose, the entire yard turned brown. Eventually, the rain returned but only the deeply rooted grass returned to life. The grass without deep roots didn’t survive.

Deep roots matter. Is your character rooted in something that can sustain you in every component of your life, in every situation that the world might throw your way? Have you built a moral framework that works for you holistically, as an Army leader and as a human being? As a spouse, a parent, a citizen, and a person of faith?

In the 2012 song “Some Nights,” Nate Ruess and Fun gave us a lament for the current age:

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know anymore…

I’m here to tell you that you need to figure out what you do stand for. Those who know are much better able to deal with life than those who don’t.

Live It: Training the Gut

Knowing what you stand for, however, is just the first step in developing a character that works. You develop depth of character by living your values every day.

ADRP 6-22 states:

“Consistently doing the right thing forges strong character in individuals and expands to create a culture of trust throughout the organization.”

Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Aristotle said,

“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

The word we usually associate with Aristotle’s view of ethics is virtue. A virtue is a positive human quality that is developed by repeated practice until it becomes almost second nature.

When I first came in the Army, the leadership manual described an ethical decision making process that looked a lot like the process we use to plan operations: 1) define the problem; 2) analyze all of the ethical factors involved; 3) identify and compare possible courses of action; 4) choose the option that best represents Army values.

There are times that you have to follow that rather cumbersome process, but that’s not how most decisions get made in the real world. For the most part, we decide from the gut. The trick is to train your gut to do the right thing when it’s hard by repeatedly doing the right thing when it’s not so hard.

Out behind the old Memorial Chapel at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, you will find a U-shaped depression in the bank leading up from the Missouri River. Back in the days of the old west, this is where wagons made their way up from the river where they had been unloaded from river boats. Some were supply wagons bringing goods to the fort or the town. Others were settlers’ wagons, filled with families headed west on the Oregon or Santa Fe trails. As thousands of wagons made their way up the embankment over the decades, they created a trail that subsequent travelers naturally followed. Every wagon’s wheels made it that much easier for the next wagon to follow the same the same path, and harder to do anything else.

For better or for worse, practice makes permanent. Wherever you lay down your wagon tracks, that’s where you will drive your wagon again and again.

We realize the importance of repeated practice in our warrior tasks and drills. Through repetition, we develop “muscle memory” that enables us to perform our mission tasks in any condition, even under fire in the dark in the middle of a driving rain storm. That same principle applies to our moral character. The values which we habitually employ in our lives over time become a kind of second nature.

Restore It: Healing the Wounded and Worn Conscience

Soldiers conducting military operations take actions that have a profound impact on the lives of other human beings: enemy forces, friendly forces and the civilian population living in the area of operations. While it’s easy to acknowledge this truth in the abstract, it’s much more difficult to process the consequences of our actions when we are staring them in the face. Our reactions are more visceral than mental when are in the physical presence of war’s destructive power. We not only see it with our eyes, we touch it with our hands. We inhale it into our nostrils. We feel it the gut.

The responsibilities of leadership are also sometimes a heavy weight to bear. Leaders, too, make difficult decisions that affect people’s lives.

Not one of us is omniscient or omnipotent; we’re not God. We make mistakes. Our actions have consequences we could not foresee or could not avoid. Not everyone pats us on the back and says, “Good job” or “Good decision.” Oftentimes, we don’t even always feel like patting ourselves on the back.

Everyone, then, needs a means of forgiveness and acceptance built into their worldviews. I’m not talking about letting yourself off the hook for gross violations of your moral code: cheating on your spouse, abusing subordinates, stealing from the government, and so forth. Rather, I’m speaking about the everyday practice of responsibility and leadership.

Even if you never fail to live up to your own standards of integrity, even if you never take you eye off the ball, even if you do the best you possibly can, there will be times when a well developed conscience will feel troubled. If we have trained ourselves to be people with empathy for other human beings, as our doctrine says we should, we can’t avoid feeling the pain that our actions sometimes cause.

A few years ago, I heard a former division commander speak to a group of chaplains and chaplain assistants about what it felt like when the division took casualties on an important mission he personally directed a unit to perform. You could hear the pain in his voice and see it in his eyes.

If we’ve trained ourselves to be leaders of empathy, loyal to Soldiers whom we value as human beings, then it is going to get us in the gut when the requirements of leadership lead them into harm.

Military leaders make many decisions that affect people’s lives in non-lethal but painful ways: non-judicial and judicial punishment, evaluation reports, promotion boards, and reprimands. Negative counseling statements, relief for cause, discharges and dismissals. Whom to take to the field or on a deployment and who to leave behind. Whether to grant or withhold leave. How hard to push people. How stern a disciplinarian to be. Even how we organize and lead our work force affects the lives of people every day.

The physician’s oath says “Do no harm,” but there is no way to be a military leader without burdening the lives of others in some way, even if it’s for the greater good, perhaps even for the greater good of the people we burden.

One way to deal with this burden is to deaden sense of right and wrong – or to use the Bible’s words – to harden our hearts. Unfortunately, numbing the conscience destroys both one’s empathy for others and one’s commitment to self-discipline.

I wonder if this numbing of the conscience might be behind the moral failures of so many senior leaders. I don’t know if they used to have strong moral foundation and simply lost it, of if they just never had one.

Like a knee joint that wears over time, the burden of responsibility can grind down one’s conscience and deaden one’s spirit. Instead of numbing the conscience, what we need is a healthier way to restore our souls.

According to psychiatrists who study the powerful impact of guilt, what we all need is an empathetic, forgiving, accepting spiritual authority figure to whom we can tell our stories.

Since I am a chaplain, you might guess to whom I turn. As the author of Psalm 23 said about God, “He restoreth my soul.” When I assemble with the church on Sunday morning, I worship one whom I believe took upon himself the sin of the world in order to heal what is broken. Therefore, I join the other worshipers and say:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. . . . Have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways.

That’s what works for me. Your mileage may vary.

Whether it’s for big things or just an accumulation of small things, everyone needs to find a way to restore their souls.

Your moral character is essential to your own resiliency. If you don’t have a moral foundation that works for all of life, you need to invest a little time and effort to build one. Know what you stand for, and live it every day. Practice makes permanent. What you do when life is easy is what you will do when life is hard. And when your moral conscience is wounded or worn, find a way to restore it, so that it can support you and the things you care about for a long time to come.