Admiral McRaven shared life lessons from his thirty-seven years as a Navy Seal in the U.S. military. Those graduates of 2012 and today’s readers will likely never have to swim with great white sharks, be responsible for apprehending Saddam Hussein, risk life and limb to rescue hostages behind enemy lines, or serve on the President’s special terrorism unit at the White House, but all will one day face significant life challenges where the odds might be stacked against them, where they will need to dig deep to accomplish a personal mission.
Can the simple daily task of making one’s bed really have the power to change a person’s life? Admiral McRaven and the Navy Seals answer a resounding yes. That action is the beginning of discipline. Discipline is a marker of success in every facet of life from service in the military, to writing, to parenting, to spiritual faith. Navy seals in training are judged every single day by their perfect hospital corners, alignment of the pillow and whether the nickel has adequate bounce off the crisply sheet-wrapped mattress. These seem silly, especially when we understand these same men and women will later jump from airplanes into enemy territory, feel the heat of Taliban fire power, and risk their lives to rescue hostages from the terror that is our world’s reality.
The lesson is that heroes are made from the mastery of small details. Making your bed is not grounds for a medal of honor, but it sets the tone for approaching every bump and turn of your life. My favorite French Saint, Therese of Lisieux, believed the path to spiritual bliss was attending to the small things with great love. This is why I remind my kids before they hop out of the car each morning for school, “this day will be a success if you can do a single small act of kindness.”
Navy Seals are taught to be intentional and disciplined in everything they do. Every action matters from the way the bed is made to how you jump from an airplane, to how you treat the gentleman at Whole Foods who has Aspberger’s and is packing up your groceries. It’s a multitude of small vignettes or gestures of positive intent, even love, that insure your life is consequential, even heroic. Worth mentioning, Admiral McRaven reported that Saddam Hussein never once made his bed under his watch.
To qualify as a Seal, one endures many physical, emotional and spiritual trials. The “Rubber raft” challenge especially spoke to me. Seven “tadpoles” (hoping to one day become Navy Seal “frogmen”) are required to carry a ten foot rubber boat for weeks everywhere they go: from the barracks to the mess hall to the shower stalls; the obstacle courses, climbing walls and in the rough Pacific surf. Some days a team member would be exhausted or sick and the other men would pull his load or paddle that much harder to cover the slack, knowing their day would come when they would need the same relief. Always, the goal is to move the raft and all seven men to the next destination and complete the mission.
Every day each of us must “carry the raft” that is our humanity everywhere we go. Sometimes it is heavier than others to bear. At any moment circumstances can shift and suddenly we fear we or a mate may falter under the weight, lose the battle or even quit. But God never meant for us to carry the boat of life on our own. Humanity at its finest shows up for each other at the darkest hour. There are people in my life (my husband, parents, sisters, dear friends, even strangers) who have had my back through harrowing missions. I know and they know that there is not an enemy line, mine field or shark tank where we would not go to save one another. It is God’s beautiful design: All for one and one for all.
Admiral McRaven insists one is not born a hero. But rather we spend our lives constantly training to become one. It is the myriad circumstances of life that give us “realtime” experience to build strength, to increase our capacity for courage, to form a loyal “platoon” to face battle together, to practice love and to serve God. Living means suffering at times and being afraid. Like the Seals, we must invest in loyalty and meaningful relationships. We will participate in many love missions to rescue friends, family, even strangers from behind the enemy lines of natural disasters, cancer, depression, divorce, addiction and pure evil. We will bravely fight for dignity, healing and redemption. Love, given and received, is ultimately what makes us heroic.
After reading McRaven’s book, I see my life in “operations.” There was Operation 9/11; Operation Kid with Cancer; Operation Teenagers; Operation Pastoral ministering. Every single mission tests me in mind, body and soul. But here in the “field” is where I see what I am made of. But more importantly I can see the lengths my Commanding officer goes for the success of the ultimate mission.
Lastly, I want to recall Admiral McRaven’s “gold bell.” Every Navy Seal recruit may ring it three times to call it quits on the program. A career as a Navy Seal is terminated. We’ve all had times when we want to cry uncle, throw in the towel or ring a bell and just give up. Grief, pain in mind and body, spiritual doubt and existential fear will have us eyeing the gold bell for relief. But as Admiral McRaven implores at the end of his book, “Never, ever, ring the bell.” With grit and grace, hold on. Lean on your platoon, look to your Commanding officer, but whatever you do, don’t give up. Hope is waiting, holding on in expectation for what God can do and what God has in store for our lives next. One day we will understand the whole picture, how God used the heartbreak and the glories to fulfill the worthy mission that is our one precious life.
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