Seminal Questions

I have a question

Few things in our lives are as significant as a really decisive question. A question and our response to it can be life-changing. Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” directed toward his disciples is a watershed moment in the Gospel narratives. Wrestling with that same question ourselves is a major crossroads in our own lives.

“Will you marry me?” is another question with lasting impact. Both “yes” and “no” carry significant implications going forward. I think our society both under- and over- rates this question. They under-rate it because marriage is seen as no more binding than accepting a job offer. They over-rate it because of the idea of having to find “the one.” “The one” doesn’t exist until you say “I do” and then that one is the one. Yes, some candidates are better fits than others, but dozens are workable candidates.

I attended a promotion ceremony yesterday for a fellow chaplain. As part of the ceremony there was a re-affirmation of the commissioning oath. It is not required, but is often recited in this context.

I, _____, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”

(DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers.)

It is in the form of a statement, but underlying it is a question. “Will you support and defend…?”

I used to tell new soldiers that these were the three most significant decisions they would make in their lives, but it could be rephrased to the three most significant questions you will answer in your life.

  • What do you believe about God?
  • Who will you marry?
  • Will you serve in the military?

The first determines our actions and our outlook not only in this life, but the life to come; even being wrong about God carries a huge impact. (Remember “Pascal’s Wager”?) The second carries lifelong impact as well; a marriage can be terminated but it cannot be undone.

The final question may seem to not be on the same plane as the first two, but I disagree especially if the military service involves armed conflict. Just like marriage, you can leave the service, but you will always be shaped by your experience in the service. Few job choices are so all-encompassing of life while you are in them. (Name another job that can incarcerate you for not showing up to work.)

This all may just be another way to say that the choices we make in our lives determine the course of our lives. I find it interesting, though, that these choices so often come in the form of an explicit question. Until the question is voiced, the choice may still be there, but the decision hasn’t come to an explicit point.

I knew throughout high school that joining the military was an option but it had little impact on me. After getting my hair cut in the local mall my senior year, a recruiter walked by and said, “I like that haircut. Ever thought of enlisting?” I don’t remember my exact reply, but it was dismissive. I was looking forward to college at that point, but if I had answered differently, my life would have taken a radically different course.

Many years later I asked myself the question, “What if I become a chaplain?” Twelve years later, I’m sitting on a US Army post in Germany pondering how that question has shaped a significant chunk of my life. Questions—and our answers—matter.


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