Lessons from the Senate chaplain to take on tough times

After 27 years in the U.S. Navy and nearly a decade counseling lawmakers and presidents, Senate Chaplain Barry Black has penned a new book on lessons learned from facing difficult times. The author spoke to The Hill about his book, The Blessing of Adversity: Finding your God-Given Purpose in Life’s Troubles, and how people can not only weather hardships but also come to embrace them.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I was in a hospital with a cancer patient, and was so startled by the toll that the aggressive cancer had taken, that I didn’t have very much to say. And as I sat there in a military hospital, a Marine came by and stuck his head in the door, a tall, physically fit fellow. And [he] began to describe what the cancer patient was experiencing. And he said your food tastes like cardboard, you have no appetite, and he said it will probably be malnutrition and starvation that will kill you before the treatment. He went on to say that he had had the same kind of cancer, and talked about what he did both physically and spiritually to beat the disease. And it was as if someone had hooked up a resuscitation machine; this patient really was positively impacted by that story. And I thought about how there was a blessing in the adversity that the recovered cancer patient had experienced, and that by sharing what he had, he was able to bring hope to this Marine.

Q: Are people becoming less and less able to embrace and anticipate adversity as part of daily life?

Yeah, I think that we’re in an environment where we’re bombarded with commercials and with various other media outreach that basically says you can be happy if  ...: You can be happy if you use this kind of toothpaste. You can be happy if you go to this fitness center. You can be happy if you drink this kind of beer, and it’s all so magical. And we begin to believe that happiness is something I’m entitled to: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And yet we don’t really think very clearly about the nature of happiness … When you can find — says The Nicomachean Ethics — activities that lead you in the direction of virtue, which [Aristotle] describes as the golden mean, the middle thing between the vice and the virtue, then you’re going to find the meaning and the fulfillment that most people miss because they’re chasing the means rather than the end.

Q: How do you counsel lawmakers who ask for your advice in difficult times?

I certainly talk with them about knowing that they have options and how they can respond to their adversity … Assisting people in reframing their predicament so that they can see that there can be some positives in it — that is what I do a lot of in counseling, and also to let them know that they have a choice to make in terms of how they respond.

Q: Do lawmakers wrestle with virtue, or is it inherently built into their jobs as representatives of the populace?

I think they wrestle with it, but I think that being a part of the legislative branch brings a tremendous amount of fulfillment because it provides you with an opportunity to touch so many lives. If I’m a physician, I can help a number of people get well. If I’m a lawyer, I could help a number of people with their legal problems. But if I’m a legislator, one law can literally have a positive impact upon millions of people. There aren’t very many people who have that opportunity. In fact, that is one of the reasons why Aristotle, in The Nicomachean Ethics, says that politics is probably the noblest of professions. And I know there are those who will debate [that]. I think there’s a tremendous amount of fulfillment, and I think that that is one of the reasons why our lawmakers many times wrestle with what is the ethical thing to do and what is the right thing to do, because the consequence of making the wrong decision can be so great and have a negative impact on so many people.