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Purpose: Examining the Pillars of Fitness

"For many people, spirituality is purpose, not necessarily religion." -Capt. Aaron Reynolds, a Joint Base Andrews chaplain. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class J.D. Maidens)

"For many people, spirituality is purpose, not necessarily religion." -Capt. Aaron Reynolds, a Joint Base Andrews chaplain. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class J.D. Maidens)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." -Friedrich Nietzche

A man, wearing a green t-shirt and blue slacks, sits on a crème sofa against yellow walls, the windows behind him peering into the black. The scene is filtered yellow like a 1990's sitcom.

The man looks through the local newspaper. He's bored with the brightly-colored meteorology charts forecasting the coming week's weather. Clicking on the TV, the current program is interrupted by a breaking news bulletin:

"A bus crash downtown has left approximately 30 passengers missing, presumed dead," the blonde anchor says. "The bus was involved in a tour at the local Air Force Base."

The news is worrying. The man calls to his wife, cooking dinner, and asks about "Tammy," a family friend. She was on that tour.

- - -

It is not possible to make it through life on the merits of success and achievement without noticing the elephant in the room; who are we and why does it matter?
That is the essence of spirituality.

"For many people, spirituality is purpose, not necessarily religion" said Chaplain Aaron Reynolds, a Joint Base Andrews chaplain. "Having a healthy purpose brings meaning to day-to-day life."

It is this purpose that keeps us going when the things we hold most dear: relationships, material wealth, sanity, crumble around us.

"When someone comes into my office for advice, I ask what they stand on," Reynolds said. "People who don't have a purpose to keep on the horizon have more difficulty in dealing with the problems that inevitably arise. The material world is transient, we need something beyond that."

In this parable lies the problem of identity, who we think we are versus who we really are.

"How can we address our weaknesses as people, if we don't even know who we are?" Reynolds said. "We won't even be addressing the right problems, only the imaginary ones."

And our concept of ego.

"If a leader knows their weaknesses, is humble, approachable and true, you know where you stand on the team," Reynolds said. "If a leader is egotistical and thinks they can or are doing everything, why do you even need the team?"

These issues, ego and purpose, strain how we see others and ourselves.

"When people come in with relationship problems or trouble at work, it's usually an issue of individual values," Reynolds said. "We have trouble seeing the other side, because we're so wrapped up in ourselves, what we want to do, what we ought to do. When we start addressing our egos and thinking about the meaning we create for ourselves, problems have a tendency to trivialize themselves."

This identity problem manifests for many in the military.

"The military offers us a performance-based identity with ribbons and rank and achievement, it's the competition that makes us the greatest military power in the history of mankind," Reynolds said. "But eventually, we have to take off the uniform and face the man in the mirror, who we really are."

However, the military can provide us a purpose.

"When we go to war for our brothers and sisters, we lose the purpose and ego in ourselves," said Reynolds. "We find it in the guy next to us."
But purpose and ego have a universal weakness.

- - -

A man wearing shorts riding up his thigh and an oversized grey t-shirt, standard 90's athletic gear, walks in his kitchen in time to hear the phone ring. Through the window behind, sunlight drifts past the bright-green leaves of a tree and casts itself on the baby blue walls and white stove. The man is an Air Force Major. The call he receives is about the death notification he's going to have to make, letting the next of kin of a service member know that their loved one has passed away.

These scenes are from the how-to death notification video shown to all those who could be involved in the process of notifying family members and doing the clerical work derived from the death of a service member. Military life can be fraught with fatal incidents, so the process is planned to the smallest detail; that is not to say notifying the family of death is easy, or promising material wealth will ease the process.

"$400,000 is never going to bring your loved one back," said Joseph Sites, 11th Force Support Squadron casualty assistance representative, referring to the money from a possible insurance policy. "The moment of truth is when the loved one has to put pen-to-paper and sign the claim."

Losing someone who is close on a personal level is one of the most mentally and spiritually challenging experiences a person can have. It is common for a family member to seek the advice of a chaplain.

"We have to help them understand the stages of grief, let them know it's okay to feel this way," said Reynolds. "Everyone's grief is different, there's no universal timeline for moving on. Time is one of the most important factors in healing process, time and understanding."

However, one characteristic of grief stuck out in Reynold's experiences with death.
"Before I was a chaplain, I was a respiratory therapist," Reynolds said. "We had to extubate patients from their ventilator and let them pass. It seemed like if the family was spiritual, they had more peace of mind."

From knowing who we are to how we deal with death, purpose profoundly impacts our daily lives. It is only when we let go of our ideas of ourselves and who we ought to be that we can actually be ourselves and see life for what it is: whatever we make it.

(Editor's note: this is Part 2 in a series examining the Pillars of Airman Fitness)