Life lessons from the Brig
“You can be all you want to be,” parents and teachers tell children and students. Schools prepare them for a good start in their chosen careers. But we also need to do is to prepare them to end well.
Athletes, actors, talk show hosts, presidents, comedians, chefs, CEOs, movie producers, evangelists. Many among them have failed morally, convicted in courts of law or public opinion for ethical failures. They started well but ended badly. Victims of the Uzziah syndrome.
King Uzziah was the tenth king of ancient Israel. Archaeologists date his reign to 783-742 BC. One of the most celebrated kings of Israel during Old Testament times, Uzziah started as a god-fearing ruler, the most prosperous since Solomon. But pride entered his heart and as punishment, God struck him with leprosy.
Though both conventional wisdom and empirical data suggest that leaders who possess great strengths also present greater than average weaknesses, everyone can fall victim to Uzziah syndrome. The Navy Brig is home to those who joined the service with high hopes about service to family, God and country, but later compromised their values and now await military justice.
What lessons can we teach young men and women that will help them end well?
1. Integrity: A Marine master sergeant once asked former Nixon adviser Charles Colson: “Which is more important, integrity or loyalty?” No one knew the answer better than Colson, who served eight months in prison for his involvement in Watergate. Misplaced loyalty can enslave. A former Marine himself, Colson later confessed to his misplaced loyalty that led to unethical behavior. (Colson later became a devout Christian and founded Prison Fellowship.) Integrity beats loyalty any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world,” said the existentialist Albert Camus. The Hebrew word “tom” means “whole,” as in whole number or integer. It conveys wholeness rather than fragmentation. An essential part of integrity is courage. Integrity sometimes means sacrificing reputation on the altar of truth. Retired Commander Scott Waddell was captain of the USS Greenville when errors were made that led to the death of nine aboard a Japanese fishing boat near Hawaii in 2001. In his biography “The Right Thing,” he said lying was never an option.
2. Forgiveness: This cannot be underestimated. Like anger, unforgiveness is a gateway to other disqualifying sins. It has the power to inflict havoc on one’s soul. The human psyche rubbed raw by toxic emotions is susceptible to immorality, drunkenness, extortion, etc. The “don’t get mad, get even” tract is a sure path to the Uzziah syndrome.
“It is God’s job to forgive our enemies. It is our job to arrange the meeting,” said Gen. Norman Schwartzkoff. “There is no future without forgiveness,” said Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Forgiveness is a difficult command, fraught with misunderstanding, making it difficult to obey. For Christians, the standard of forgiveness is God’s forgiveness of us. To forgive is not to forget. But it does mean to stop replaying the offense. To forgive does not mean condoning the wrong. It means releasing the offender of the wrong. Forgiveness is not reconciliation and does not require confronting the offender. Forgiveness is wedded to grace. When you forgive someone you release a captive from prison. Surprisingly, the person you release is yourself, said ethicist Lewis Smedes.
3. Simplicity and Humility: Nothing makes a person more vulnerable to failure than pride. Uzzah’s immense power and prolific success was his eventual undoing. Uzziah’s ego could not withstand the maelstrom power unleashes on a soul. Pride thumbs its nose at the need for God and others.
A Michigan farm boy spends many summers pulling out milkweeds that embed themselves on Michigan clay. The stem close to the ground must be pulled to eradicate the entire root. Or the weed regrows. Pride is the taproot of every sin and like milkweeds, warrant close surveillance.
A Roman soldier in Biblical times was warned not to entangle himself with civilian affairs, and forbidden to carry creature comforts to battle. Socrates habitually wore a simple public attire to keep pride at bay.
CS Lewis, much loved British author and Christian apologist, sought to tame the dragon of pride by downplaying his celebrity. He attacked “pride of life” with the ferocity of an NFL linebacker. His self-awareness dissuaded him from accepting speaking engagements in the US where he was a coveted lecturer. He acknowledged that all things were lawful for him, but not all things were helpful or edifying to his soul.
The Navy and Marine Corps adhere to “leaders eat last” servant leadership. Showing deference to others is a powerful strategy for defeating pride. When one treats others considered “junior” to them with a “you first” mentality it serves to defang the beast of pride.
During a deployment to Iraq years ago, the commanding officer gave a brief on every piece of combat gear. He prefaced what some might consider a banal briefing with “The government has spent a lot of money to keep you alive. Don’t be stupid and neglect to put on any piece of gear before you go outside the wires.”
As the military painstakingly protects its warriors, so should you protect yourself and your success. What is the point of starting well and at the end of your life succumbs to the Uzziah syndrome? Integrity, forgiveness, simplicity and humility - put them on before you go outside the wires.
Daniel Klender serves as a Navy chaplain at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California. He has worked with sailors and Marines in Iraq, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. He is the author of “Living with the End in View” and “Uzziah Syndrome: 40 Keys to Finishing Your Life and Ministry Well.” You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.