I recently saw a Trident submarine sailing through Puget Sound, surrounded by a fleet of support ships on it’s way to the open Pacific. The Captain of my ferry announced the sub’s presence off our port bow and many of the passengers looked up from their books, puzzles, and conversations to line the windows and marvel at this black nuclear-powered machine sliding silently by.
I brought out my smart phone and looked up the facts. This submarine was equipped with 24 Trident Missiles, each carrying 8-12 independently targetable nuclear warheads able to strike targets more than 7000 miles away. The submarine fleet carries about 50% of the US arsenal of thermonuclear weapons and can hide undetected anywhere in the world for months.
It was a moment of contrasts: A warm blue-skyed Puget Sound afternoon, teeming with sailboats and tourist ferries, set against the shivering efficiency of 560-foot long reaper’s scythe packed with enough killing power to wipe out a continent. Despite the 83-degree temperature, this Buddhist pacifist felt a chill.
My mind drifted back to a recent hospice patient. I had learned from his family that he was a retired submarine captain, but until seeing this actual Trident Submarine, I didn’t understand the significance of that role: He was the man at the helm; he was responsible for 288 nuclear warheads; he could not make a mistake. What was it like for him to change from a man whose order could bring death to millions into someone who couldn’t even control his own bowels?
This man’s family was in crisis. They called him ‘Admiral.’ In his family, as on his submarine, he alone made decisions but the dying process had now robbed him of command. His family knew how to follow orders but had no experience with compromise or consensus. He left no clear succession of power. His adult children and wife were competing to become the new family admiral as they faced off on a winner take all battlefield of arguments, accusations, and hidden maneuvers.
In chaplaincy, we talk about languages of meaning. These are the languages people use to make sense of their lives and to find meaning within their circumstances. One of our chaplaincy tasks is to observe which language of meaning our patient is using and meet them there. I’ve met people in languages as diverse as Evangelical Christianity, mountain climbing, child rearing and heavy equipment repair. But I realize now that I was not equipped to meet the Admiral and his family within their language of meaning. How could I ever hope to understand what it’s like to command a nuclear submarine? How could I imagine the weight of being responsible for death on a global scale or know the burden of having to answer for the potentially catastrophic mistakes of those I command?
From the point of view of an outsider, this family’s infighting and intrigue might have seemed dysfunctional. It looked like they couldn’t cope with death without eating each other alive. But from the Admiral’s seat, this top-down structure may have been the only way to keep the ship safe and under control. For him, the world is treacherous and needs strong leadership to keep chaos at bay. How better to commission a new family leader than to allow the strongest to rise in battle? Consensus and compromise are luxuries for those without the clarity to see danger. A soft family will not survive. Battle on!
The chaplain’s role is to observe, learn and meet patients where they are. It is humbling to know that my own experiences leave me blind to many languages of meaning. This case reenergizes my aspiration to meet people with open humility and accept that I can not know the depth and breadth of a person’s language. What I can do, what experience has taught me to do, is to trust that there is more at work than my skills and knowledge. Despite the absurd contrast of a pacifist Buddhist Chaplain walking into the family of a submarine captain, something happened there that was useful. Over two hours, we built trust, spoke hard truths and moved closer to an intimacy that was hidden under family struggle. We vented steam. We made a plan for moving forward. We created the space for child and father, wife and husband, to meet as beloveds, freed momentarily from the command structure.
The family was ready to let down their guard and I was ready to respect their culture, and this shared vulnerability was transformative in ways none of us could have anticipated. They moved towards family intimacy and I moved towards a new understanding of the burdens of command. As it turns out, I didn’t have to know their language of meaning, nor did they have to know mine. All it took was a mutual willingness to become vulnerable and a new shared language of meaning arose.