Extreme Ownership and Extreme Healing

Retired Navy Seal, Jocko Willink has become a popular nugget of wisdom. His book, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win” has become an instant best-seller. In the book, Willink articulates that when you make a mistake, it’s imperative to own your blunder, cease from blaming others and not make excuses. This concept of taking responsibility for one’s slipup harkens to that popular phrase “my bad” heard throughout sports training camp.

Willink goes on to say, “Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team.”

In these few phrases Willink, whether he knows it or not, is pointing to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession). In this article, we’ll take a deep-dive into the one Sacrament that people try to avoid, yet deep down recognize its surgical-like potency. The need for confession begins to surface with Willink’s concept to honestly own up to our failings.

Scads of research show people trust those who can candidly admit their mistakes. More so, experts illuminate that by owning your mistakes you become more well-rounded, liked, and able to advance in your intellectual, moral, and emotional development. In fact, many career specialists agree that the mark of a true leader is one that can honestly admit their mistakes. In short, owning your errors form you into a well-trusted and strong leader.

As Larry Kirchenbauer has indicated, “You have to own your mistakes, otherwise your mistakes will own you. Refusing to own your mistakes doesn’t make you seem more competent, it reveals cowardice, callousness, and untrustworthiness.”

Conversely, when an individual ardently refuses to acknowledge the slightest mishap that reveals they are wrong, they’ll inevitably go down the grim path of pride. As former Navy Seal, Willink also goes on to say, “Ego clouds and disrupts everything.” Willink’s statement parallels the Biblical mantra, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Of course, pride may just insinuate one is too emotionally unstable to admit failure. Here, the person fears appearing vulnerable in the eyes of others. In which case the person desperately needs the strength of humility to stand on.

Psychologist Guy Winch writes, “Some people have such a fragile ego, such brittle self-esteem, such a weak ‘psychological constitution,’ that admitting they made a mistake or that they were wrong is fundamentally too threatening for their egos to tolerate.” Winch goes on to say, “Accepting they were wrong, absorbing that reality, would be so psychologically shattering, their defense mechanisms do something remarkable to avoid doing so — they literally distort their perception of reality to make it (reality) less threatening. Their defense mechanisms protect their fragile ego by changing the very facts in their mind, so they are no longer wrong or culpable.”

In other words, by constantly deflecting personal blame, one is paying homage to their frail ego in which they literally alter reality to avoid viewing themselves in a negative light. Here, pride never gives humility the light of day to enter in.

The common denominator of “owning” one’s short comings surface from the virtue of humility. Conversely, those that lack humility are those who will continuously refuse to confess their mistakes.

To be sure, it’s easy to fall into the trap of holding on to pride while never letting in humility. Why? Because our world makes us think that if we have guilt or regret this is a bad thing. We live in a world of “no regret” but the regrets act as our conscience signaling to us that we’ve gone adrift from where God wants us to be. 

Thomas Aquinas articulates that regret, guilt, or shame operate as a warning mechanism from our conscience to alert us that our spiritual compass is amiss. To remove regret from one’s soul would be like putting black tape over the “check-engine” light in a car – it ends up exacerbating the problem. The Church Fathers collectively defined conscience as the innate message from the moral law giver that is God. Given that man is in constant rebellion from God, conscience acts as a safeguard, a lone voice pointing out the problems like an annoying brother that keeps telling his siblings that they are not following the loving father’s plan for them.  

Socrates spoke of conscience as a restrainer rather than a promoter of action, in that conscience tempers flawed man from running amok through his actions. In his Essay on Characteristics Thomas Carlyle asserts that we should have no sense of having a conscience but for the fact that we have sinned.

Here, we enter into the dramatic tug of war that strains at one’s soul. Deep within, a person remains conflicted as their thoughts tell them one thing while their conscience conveys the opposite. For example, psychology displays that the average person repeatedly lies to look morally superior in the eyes of others. However, during this insistent scheming and dishonesty, there remains an equally unyielding voice that speaks out to communicate that all is not well within that person. This inner voice within acts as one’s conscience. Therefore, to the conspiring deceiver, conscience is akin to that pesky check-engine light that comes on while he is trying to enjoy his joy-ride. 

Of course, the person on the joy-ride abhors the check-engine light for coming on. In a similar vein, the average sinner detests the mental strain of shame, guilt, and regret that conscience reveals. So, our response is simply to ignore it. Keep enjoying the joy ride and place our attention away from the check engine light. However, conscience’s check engine light in our soul doesn’t fade away. Typically, at this point excuses and rationalizations surface in an effort to explain away the check-engine light that is conscience.

However, concocting excuses are not effective in muting conscience. Excuses and rationalizations mere presence is an acknowledgement that one’s moral compass is off. The fact that an excuse is needed alerts to a problem. After all, if you are doing something good, you don’t need to justify your behavior. No one needs to make excuses or rationalizations for feeding the poor. Why? Because when you are doing a noble deed, your conscience doesn’t need to warn you of any dilemma.  

When conscience continues to alert one of their flawed actions, that person will enter into a series of mental acrobatics in attempting to convince himself what he is doing is okay when, in fact, it is not. The man who constantly needs to excuse and rationalize his thoughts and actions will inevitably end up exhausted from his complicated mental scheming. So, we have two choices – change our actions to do what is right and remove guilt or continue the psychological game of excuses.

When attempting to justify our behavior fails, other methods surface such as shifting the mind to countless distractions to silence the conscience. This move is analogous to putting one’s eyes on other things in order to not see the check engine light. In our tech-crazed world of the iPhone it is easy to create a tsunami of distractions to divert us from our conscience. Try as you may, pumping up more diversions does not make our conscience go away any more than listening to loud music does not shut off the check-engine light in the car.

Realizing that distractions predictably fail, the mind then inserts the need for false substitutes to remove the guilt. Here, one clings to numbing the guilt through alcohol, drugs or other vectors of pleasure. But, these false substitutes merely serve as a cheap Band-Aid to the situation.

Finally, with a desperate attempt to rid the message of one’s conscience, society has manufactured an elaborate theory to show that any sign of guilt is bad. Here, society cleverly teaches that any mention of something that would provoke guilt, shame, or remorse in a person is psychologically damaging to them. Therefore, you can’t call out any bad actions for fear of guilt. However, as Aquinas (and others) teaches, guilt is a good thing in that it acts as a signal that we’ve drifted off course. After all, if we had no remorse or guilt we’d be on par with a sociopath. Pain in the body can be a good thing in that it alerts us that something is not right. Similarly, regret and guilt are helpful in that God uses it as a megaphone to call us back to him. Without the use of guilt we would never be warned of the times we go the wrong way.

Philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “Guilt and shame are often justified. And what they demand of us isn’t therapy in order to remove them, but right conduct so that they have no need to occur.” Here we make a choice – either change our actions or change our ideas about what is right so we can justify our actions and do whatever we want. Being afraid to change our actions we consequently rationalize (e.g., everyone else is doing it), make excuses, blame, or fill our lives with constant distractions to drown out the voice of conscience.

In short, medicating guilt through alcohol and a plethora of other distractions is a lost cause while trying to rationalize the guilt of sin is a tiering, complicated endeavor. These false conciliations will never bring us peace. However, listening to our conscience allows us to take on responsibility and spurs us on to say, “I’m sorry.” At this point, one has walked away from pride and entered into a state of humility.

So we must ask, what next? Where is our psychological “service stop” to address and fix whatever our spiritual check-engine light has triggered? The one place that allows you to own your mistakes and remove all guilt is in the Sacrament of Confession. Confession deals with the root cause of the problem head-on. The famous psychiatrist Carol Jung said, “If my patients went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I’d lose 99% of them.” Rather than spending a fortune on therapy and psychoanalysts the Sacrament of Confession is free, anonymous, and incredibly effective.

During his life, Jesus forgave human errors called sin (see John 8:1–11, Mark 2:5, Luke 7:47-50). He exercised this power in his human capacity as the Messiah or Son of man, telling us, “the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6), which is why the Gospel writer himself explains that God “had given such authority to men” (Matt. 9:8, 2 Cor. 5:18). 

Since he would not always be with the Church visibly, Christ gave this power to forgive sins to the apostles, and it was a power that could be passed on to their successors and agents. 

“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).

This scene in John’s Gospel is one of only two times we are told that God breathed on man. The other being in Genesis 2:7, when God made man a living soul. This fact emphasizes how important the establishment of the Sacrament of Confession is – it’s analogous to the creation of a new soul.

Our current situation today of excuses and rationalizations parallels what we find in the original account back in Genesis. God gave Adam and Eve everything including Himself. After Adam and Eve voluntarily defied God, they felt the full weight of their guilt flowing from their actions. Then, what did they do? The Bible says they hid from God. Isn’t this what we tend to do when we sin and guilt enters into us? We hide from God through countless distractions. Besides hiding, Adam and Eve cunningly attempted to make excuses for them. Adam blames his wife by saying, “The woman, she gave it to me.” It actually gets worse because Adam passes the buck to God by alluded that this flawed woman “that you gave to me” made me do it (see Genesis 3:12). Eve also fails to take responsibility for her actions. She tries to justify her actions by saying that the serpent made her do it. In this exchange, it’s important to realize that God wasn’t looking to get at the bottom of the chain of events trying to figure out who tricked who and who’s to blame. God was only interested in an honest, contrite heart. God views the sin not at who caused it, he looks at the end result of the sin – removing oneself away from God. Therefore, God’s question to Adam of “where are you?” is not a question of where is your physical location as though the Deity needs you to tell him where you’re at. His question is more pressing in asking where is your soul in relation to Him.

All Adam needed to do was turn back to God and say, “I’m sorry I did this. I’ve sinned, please forgive me.” In short, all Adam has to do is what Willink is repeating in his book – take ownership of your flawed actions.

Just like Adam and Eve covered up the effects of their sin through fig leaves, we cover up the effect of our sin by desperately trying to convince ourselves that nothing is wrong through endless excuses and distractions.

The Adam and Eve story where their shame is on full view doesn’t get well played in our hyper-sensitive culture.

At this point, we need to make a crucial distinction to refute our society’s anti-guilt theory. There is a significant difference between admitting your mistakes and shaming yourself as worthless. One is about knowing you are big enough to admit an error whereas self-shaming means you label yourself as a mistake. It is the distinction to know that your actions have mistakes in them but you, as a person in the image of God are not a mistake. The former stresses your actions while the latter highlights who your identity is. As Pope John Paul II said, “You are not the sum of your weaknesses and failures. You are the sum of your Father’s love for you.” This concept is seen in the woman who was caught in adultery (see John 8: 1-11). Jesus did not condemn her as a person but forgave her act in showing that her negative actions don’t define her. Then, by stating “go and sin no more” he was moving her actions closer to her real identity with God in a perfected state.

Much like a good quarterback doesn’t focus on the interception they just threw but rather on the coach’s helpful advice on how to avoid that, so too the average sinner shouldn’t belabor over their mistake but instead fixate on the priest’s wise counsel on how to elude that sin in the future.

Don’t fall prey to the culture’s attempt to have your actions (whether good or bad) define you. As Father Nix is fond of saying, “God knows your sins but he calls you by your name. The devil knows your name, but he calls you by your sins.”

The power of the Sacrament of Confession cannot be overstated. It removes all the garbage of remorse and guilt. Saint Augustine observed that God’s love is more evident in forgiving sinners than in the creation of the entire universe. As John Paul II put it, “God displays his power at his height by freely forgiving sins” (CCC 270).

The healing of the words from an appointed priest by God of “you’re forgiven” is immensely powerful. The question is now will you go seek these words out?

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