[August 1, 2022] That day, the senior sergeant on duty gave me a simple choice. I was transitioning out of the U.S. Army, and it was August, a very hot and sweltering day at Fort Dix, NJ. I could see Soldiers outside mowing the grass, cleaning up the sizeable grassy parade field next to the large building where I sat. I could see the sweat pouring off those young men, clearly uncomfortable out in the heat of midday. “You can go to the chapel and hear our Chaplain give his sermon, or you can help outside with the grass.”
I don’t remember his name or much about the Chaplain that day, nor did I try. I was interested in getting the heck out of the military and returning to college, where I was accepted into the Engineering program. What I remember well about sitting in the air-conditioned chapel was the Biblical story of Moses and the Israelites we were to hear. I’d heard it before. I thought about how I would be bored again, much as I had often been in the past. Another hurry up and wait episode in the Army; I was used to it. Sit there, look interested, don’t fidget in the pews, occasionally smile, and be polite if necessary.
I was about to gain an important understanding of fear. Now, I’m was no idiot. I was in the Army for nearly seven years and had done my time in some challenging circumstances that most of us fear. It matters not who you are or how much experience you have; you can still be halted by fear.
This chaplain told the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of the tyranny as Egyptian slaves and into the desert. The Chaplain began his sermon by stating something profound; that tyranny over humans is not a natural state; that slavery is an immoral condition that is imposed upon us as an outside, unnatural force (I think he might have used the word “unholy”). We are not the kind of people that should be subject to arbitrary tyranny, the tyranny of the state and tyranny internally of ourselves.
He proposed to us a moral, philosophical question. Out of the tyranny, into the desert. Which is worse?
The Israelites are now out in the desert and have been there for 40 years. Oddly enough, they don’t go to the promised land. They go into the desert. The desert after tyranny, now that’s a real problem. They are now wandering around in the desert, and in that 40 years, they start worshiping false idols and fighting with themselves. Maybe they are not so sure that the god that informed them to leave the tyranny was right in the first place. They are suffering in the desert; they lack faith.
God is not happy about this, and He sends poisonous snakes in to bite them. That’s pretty brutal and a very unexpected act of God, especially as we know Him to be a merciful being. The poor Israelites. First, they’re in tyranny and slavery. Then they had to go across the Red Sea and into the desert, where they wandered around for 40 years, and the best solution for them was for God to send in venomous snakes to bite them.
I’m rephrasing here a bit, of course, but Moses’ people go to Moses and ask him to ask God to call off the snakes. God could have called off the snakes after he got their attention to show that He is compassionate and kindhearted. But that is not what He did. God says to Moses, cast an image of a snake in bronze, place that image onto a wooden staff, and stick it into the ground. And, then have the Israelites go and look at the image and then the snakes won’t bite them anymore.
I’d read this line in the Bible many times before but never understood, nor did I know I didn’t have a clue what it meant. The doctrine from all fields of therapeutic treatment in the last 100 years says to confront what makes you afraid voluntarily, and you will get better. It’s curative. That’s the message. If something is terrifying you, pay more attention to it. If you can get people to face what they are afraid of, they don’t get less afraid; they get braver. They discover that there is much more to them than they thought; they’re not as easily intimidated; they see themselves in a new light.
Face what you are most afraid of, and you will be free. God doesn’t take away the snakes. He makes everyone braver because that’s better than being safe. It follows that a world with snakes is a better world because people are now braver, better, and more awake.
The lesson is that bravery is far better and a more reliable way to be human.
Please read my new book, “Our Longest Year in Iraq,” on Amazon (link here).