The Benefit of Walking with a Limp

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By John Seel, PhD

I taught Kris in high school. His grade sheets are still on my computer. I cheered him in soccer, where he excelled. I wrote his college recommendations. I also attended his full military honors funeral. Kris shot himself in his backyard, leaving behind a wife and one-year-old baby. Kris was an Army medic. Military suicide is no longer an abstraction.

In 2013, suicide surpassed war as the leading cause of death for persons serving in the United States military. The invisible wounds of war are deep, persistent, and can no longer be denied. After having volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline, I became interested in an article published in Spirituality in Clinical Practice that asks how religious belief affects suicide outcomes.

The authors of the study recognize that “Spirituality is a multifaceted construct that often provides a powerful meaning framework for negotiating the reality and consequences of trauma.” But their research also made a striking discovery: more than religious affiliation, how somebody is religious is what factors in to suicide outcomes.

I write often about the difference between a closed or open perspective on one’s beliefs. A person with a closed perspective feels like they have a corner on the truth, and tends to approach reality with an either/or frame. A person with an open frame maintains their convictions, but at the same time is aware that they might be wrong, there is always more to learn, and specifically they might have something to learn from someone with a different perspective. They tend toward a both/and frame. It is the difference between settlers (closed) and seekers (open). It is a crucial difference in how one approaches life. New Copernicans are champions of an open perspective.

When it comes to suicide, this study found that those with a rigid closed perspective—where people are taught to believe in having all the answers—did more poorly than those with a more open, broad, or questioning perspective. In addition, what was more important than doctrine or “correct” belief was being involved in a supportive community. Thus those who have an open perspective on their faith showed fewer signs of PTSD or suicidal thoughts and behavior. This is a significant finding.

Those who assume a posture toward religious beliefs that is rigidly black and white have a much more difficult time negotiating the messiness of military life under the pressures of combat.

Those who assume a posture toward religious beliefs that is rigidly black and white or overly cognitive (read: doctrinal) have a much more difficult time negotiating the messiness of military life under the pressures of combat. New Copernicans would hardly find this surprising, because many of their own negative experiences with religion stem from the fact that a closed perspective does not align well with the messiness of their own experience. Lived reality has a way of putting one’s beliefs under pressure. Jesus promised: live long enough and the floods will come and the winds will blow and the strength of one’s spiritual foundations will be tested. Such is the nature of reality.

The humble, open, always-learning faith of New Copernicans proves to be more stable under the extreme pressures of life. Once again, spiritually oriented millennials are leading the way toward a psychologically healthier religious disposition. Black and white rigidity does not comport with reality… and cracks under pressure. It is far better to be able to embrace the messiness of life and the inherent ambiguities of one’s own personality. This is the attitude and candor common in an AA meeting. It is when one is able to walk with a limp that one can walk further.

John Seel is a consultant, writer, cultural analyst, and cultural renewal entrepreneur. He is the founder of John Seel Consulting LLC, a social impact consulting firm working with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, he is a national expert on millennials and the New Copernicans. He has an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park). He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Lafayette Hill, PA. He directs the New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues at The Sider Center at Eastern University. This post originally appeared on his blog, New Copernican Conversations.

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