First US Air Force Buddhist Chaplain Answers, “Why?”

by Brett Campbell

Nobody asks for the chaplain in the good moments. This is an unspoken rule I realized early in my career. Nobody thinks of the chaplain after they’ve delivered a healthy child or they take their first steps following an accident that left them bedbound for weeks. These are the times when life makes sense. We don’t question these experiences. We simply bask in the joy they bring to our hearts. It is in the moments of pain and uncertainty when the chaplain is called. The chaplain is called when the child is stillborn, when the young couple wants a divorce, or when the grandmother, the rock of the family, succumbs to old age. People call the chaplain when life veers from the path of normalcy. These are the times when suffering becomes real and our minds begin searching for answers. These are the times when, as a chaplain, I am faced with the question, “Why?”

 

I struggled with this question as a young chaplain. I wanted to relieve the pain a family felt when they lost their daughter to drug addiction. I wanted to fix the situation and make their hurt disappear. They asked “Why?” because they wanted relief, but I was unable to answer their question. I was only able to feel their despair and my own inadequacy. We were all stuck together in a space of intense emotion and no answers. In fact, there were no words that could heal their suffering. Sadness and confusion were the only truth in that room.

 

When we are faced with loss or change, we are often shaken to a place of emptiness. Reality no longer makes sense, emotions flood our system, and words lose all meaning. We normally feel like we have some control over our lives. Life seems to move along on a regular schedule. There are some bumps along the way, but it’s relatively comfortable. The problem is, that understanding of life was always an illusion. Life has always been messy and ever-changing, but that doesn’t change the fact that we want it all to make sense. When difficult things happen, we want those experiences to seamlessly weave into the stories we have about our lives. That is why I am asked, “Why?” We want answers to fill our emptiness.

 

Answers can relieve some suffering, but they are not the way to heal from loss and change. The truth is, the only answer to “Why?” is openness. We have to relax into the pain of loss, the pain of not knowing, the pain of change. True healing can only come through openness and letting go of our clinging to that which we have lost. That doesn’t mean we let go of the love we felt or the memories we have, but we must accept that that which we loved won’t be a part of our story going forward. As a caregiver, all I can do is create a space where fully experiencing loss is possible. I don’t have any answers to “Why?” There aren’t any answers. There is only the present moment. There is only pain and sadness and laughter and memories. These are the things we want the least when facing loss, but they are all that is left and the only thing that is real.

 

My time working as a chaplain has shown me that we must face our suffering in order to heal from it. If we spend our time running away from our pain by binging on television, excessive drinking, or any of the other ways we keep ourselves from feeling, we will never heal. We can try to run away from our suffering, but it will always be there, haunting us. It lives on in our bodies and our minds and wreaks havoc on our lives. It causes more suffering, and it continues to build on itself. We must accept our grief and let it flow through us. It is uncomfortable, but our pain is just as impermanent as the reality we are grieving. Only after we have allowed ourselves to fully feel our emotions and make peace with them and our loss can we truly begin to heal. Only then can we fully move on into our new reality, allowing for life to continue without answers and accepting it exactly as it is.

Related Books

Brett Campbell is the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the US Air Force. He has also worked as a hospital and hospice chaplain. He is a graduate of Naropa University’s Master of Divinity program and is currently training to become a certified a life coach. Brett founded Life Lived Now LLC, a mindfulness based personal coaching company whose mission is to empower people to discover their authentic selves and live their lives to the fullest. He was ordained as an Upasaka by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.