Sleepers, Awake

Military deployments sometimes present surprising opportunities for spiritual reflection. Sixteen years ago, I found myself on a base in western Iraq in charge of a Navy Combat Stress Clinic, which was conveniently located at the back of the Chapel. It was convenient for attending daily Mass and spending time with our Catholic chaplain, a reserve officer and Benedictine monk who was also a talented musician. Despite being in a war zone, it was idyllic.

One day, a young Army man came into the clinic. Although it was a Marine Corps base, the Army was amply represented. He was a National Guardsman from a midwestern state who had enlisted for college money. He was halfway through his sophomore year when he was, as he put it, “jerked from the classroom, handed a rifle, and sent to the sandbox.”

He bristled at what he viewed as a horribly unjust disruption of his life and plans. He demanded I send him home post-haste. As soon as he got there, he resolved to visit his high school and lecture all the history classes. He desperately wanted the younger students to understand that “history can happen to you” and “not to sleep through class like I did.”

As a psychiatrist, I wanted to make certain that he wasn’t mentally ill and to provide suitable aid. As a military lifer, I regarded less charitably his clueless display of naïveté and bad faith. But the psychiatrist found the invocation of history intriguing. Was there a seed of wisdom here?

He wasn’t mentally ill – nor, of course, did I send him home. He left dissatisfied. If he’s still alive, he’ll turn forty in a few years. If he’s a good man, perhaps he’ll look back on the experience with gratitude that someone made him fulfill his obligation and helped him to grow up. Perhaps not.

I feel gratitude toward him for unintentionally offering an insight. He hadn’t expected history to knock loudly on his door. Most people who live quiet, private lives don’t. As a result, he was angry and suffering. Nor was he amenable to reasoned argument that he had signed a contract.  But experience shows it is difficult to reason with someone who believes himself to be suffering unjustly, even if the suffering is largely self-inflicted.

The young soldier lacked prudence. A prudent person would have seen the likelihood of military service interfering with his goals and found other means to finance his education.  But what was interesting about him was his expectation that the larger world had somehow promised to leave him alone. To his dismay, he discovered that while history may have been dozing like a bored student in the back of the classroom, it can awaken suddenly – and ready for mischief.

The young man wasn’t religious, but even the devout can find themselves disillusioned when misfortune transpires, sometimes to the point of accusing God of abandoning them, and leading to the abandonment of their faith.

Occasionally, they consult psychiatrists like me. Usually, their suffering could be considered historical only in the loosest sense – perhaps, for example, a divorce that occurred under the influences of cultural change. Recently, a pandemic at home, civil insurrection, economic collapse, and brewing problems overseas suggest that larger events are intruding more directly into personal lives again, the aftershocks inevitably flowing into the psychiatrist’s office.


Although they may not recognize it, the patients who lose their faith may have made tacit arrangements with God to protect them from calamity if they lived “good lives” – and interpreting God’s silence as His agreement.

Sadly, this occurs among Catholics as well. One might find this surprising given that we stare at a crucifix for at least an hour a week, which depicts the most horrendous suffering imaginable. This ought to guide our expectations of life and of what God actually promises us.  God didn’t spare His own Son, yet we expect Him to spare us from misery. The unchurched young soldier had a far greater excuse for his reaction to misfortune than we, who have received so many graces.

This is a tragedy for those who have lost their faith. But one suspects that many faithful Catholics are vulnerable because their crisis awaits.  Do we believe, perhaps outside of conscious awareness, that God has made a special deal to protect us from suffering in exchange for being good?

“Good” Christians have suffered from the earliest days of the Church. There were good people in Jerusalem and Alexandria in the Seventh Century, but their goodness didn’t protect them from the Muslim armies. Millions of good Christians died in the Thirty Years War. Millions more died in the Twentieth Century under Communism. Thousands of faithful Christians still die every year due to Muslim violence.

Even in America, we see incipient persecution, with defacement of churches and exclusion of religious Christians (Catholics included) from the public square. The young soldier was right: History can happen to us, and we mustn’t sleep through it.

History immiserates lives and disrupts dreams. We best not wait for it. The time to think about suffering is before it arrives and to pray for the grace and wisdom to avoid unnecessary pain and the courage to endure what we must, with God’s love to comfort, if not rescue, us in this life. As all Christians should understand, we need to make suffering redemptive.

History knocks loudly and awakens us demanding a response. For the young soldier, it was to pick up a rifle, for us a cross. Are we ready?


*Image: USMC PVT Theodore James Miller is hauled aboard the Coast Guard-crewed attack transport USS Arthur Middleton after an assault on Eniwetok, February 19, 1944. Photo by Ray Platnick [National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC]

Bill Hocter is a forensic psychiatrist who retired from the Navy in 2016 after thirty years of service.