Faith and Religion, SAR-style

At the beginning of this present year I joined a Search and Rescue (SAR) team, and I have to say that I really, really like it; a lot. It appeals to a wide variety of features and quirks in my personality and it is probably the one thing I’ve found that at once touches so many of these things that make me me. When I’m engaged in SAR, I feel a sense of calm, purpose and wholeness that I rarely find anywhere else. I understand that the honeymoon of it all could wear off, but right now I think it would just not be possible for me to get too much SAR.

For the purposes of this post, it’s important to note one of the reasons I like SAR. I am not as successful as I’d like at being calm and peaceful in my everyday life, and I often find it tiresome because it is so spread out and so multi-task oriented. Priorities get confused as the important is ignored for the urgent. Nothing can be done fully and well because there so many things that must be addressed at least partially. I always have a laundry list of unfinished tasks, and to me this is unsettling and nerve-wracking and full of existential questions. But this is not the case with SAR. When I’m on a mission, at a meeting, or in training, there is nothing else. There are no other issues in life; I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing at the time and I feel that it’s justified and right because it is in service to others who are in need. I love the feeling of being where I should be, when I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing, with my unique abilities and interests, for the good of others, with no questions about priority. It’s pure. This has occurred to me quite explicitly when I’ve been in the field and I’ve thought, “this is my church.” And I think I need to explain a little about what I mean by that even if I need to do so in the briefest of terms. Although “church” is kind of a casual term that some people take to be a building, some to be a collection of congregants, some to be the totality of Christians, some to be the body of Christ and so forth, I think I mean something different in the SAR field. I think that maybe, when that phrase utters itself in my head, I’m thinking or feeling something along the lines of my being and my actions becoming aligned to do something with other like-minded people, with the focus being the good of each other and of the person or persons who needs us at the time. I think for me there is something spiritual about focusing one’s heart, mind and body together for something that is unquestionably good. And to have everybody else around you be similarly focused makes it… well, kind of like church.

The point of this is not so much that my feeling is right or wrong or justifiable or not, but that it raises something interesting about faith and religion, and I think this has a lot to do with the particular SAR team to which I belong. Our team is very well respected and well trained, and is called upon to respond to needs all over the state. Some of our folks even went across the country to help in the aftermath of Katrina. We have some really talented people who know how to get a job done. But, if an outsider looks at us they might not think much of us at first. We don’t have a big budget, and we aren’t fancy. We don’t drive up in a line of matching four-wheel-drive vehicles. We don’t walk around with matching uniforms and high-tech gear. We don’t waltz onto a scene as if to say, “We’re here to save the day.” We’re pretty simple. We have a hodge-podge of men and women, young and old, clean cut and scruffy, blue and white collar folks. We’re just a group of people scraping together what we can, taking things seriously, and focusing on the subject of our searches. Some of us are good friends and some of us haven’t really talked much to one another, but in the field we’re united and we help one another no matter what it takes. We don’t fuss, we don’t bicker, we don’t argue. There are no egos to get in the way. We take care of business and we take care of each other: food, water, warmth, shelter, gear, vehicles, whatever—mine is yours and yours is mine. No questions. That’s the way it is. We trust each other with our very lives. To me, this is what having a pure and humble devotion to good, and a pure and humble trust in one another, is all about. In a phrase, it is living by and according to a kind of faith. Faith in what we are called to do, faith in one another, and therefore faith that we’ll get done what we need to get done.

But suppose we spent most of our time worried about externals, opinions, and egos. Imagine all the bickering that would go on. Imagine me telling another team member that I don’t approve of her choice of flashlight or headlamp (Oh my goodness I can’t believe you still use Krypton bulbs. When are you ever going to get right and make the move to LEDs?), or that I tell a team member that his method of navigating, although effective, isn’t really proper because he doesn’t use the “best” tool to read a map? Imagine all of us spending our time in meetings talking about how much money we’re going to spend on matching boots, pants, jackets, helmets and hats, instead of how to make ourselves more effective in the field. Think of what it would be like if we turned away a member on a mission because he was wearing an orange life vest and our team is known for always wearing lime yellow, while people and property are being swept away by floodwaters. Imagine that we cared more about getting written up in the newspapers than about whether we find a subject before he or she dies from exposure. Imagine what it would be like if we bad-mouthed other teams after they had successful missions (yeah, sure, they found the subjects and extracted them safely with no injuries, but, you know, we would have done it the right way), as if it’s more important for us to carry out a mission than it is for the mission to get done. Suppose that when an Incident Commander is forming up teams to head off into the mountains on foot, we argue with him or her because some of us just don’t like being around certain other people and “Hey it’s my turn to lead a team.” Imagine as many of these situations as you can, and imagine how they contrast to the simplicity of helping and supporting and trusting one another, and of being absolutely and totally devoted and unified in our mission to rescue a person or persons in need. Such a focus on trivia, fueled by ego, pride, and ignorance of our basic purpose, would keep us distracted from the truth of who we are and why we are here. It would in theory be a great deal of time and energy and rhetoric devoted to what is inarguably good. It would therefore give us a sense of self-satisfaction about who we are and how we spend our time and why we argue over what we do. It would also be a tremendous stumbling block to, and a poor replacement for, the more plain and far richer truth. It would be a matter of placing “Search and Rescue” above searching and rescuing. In a word, it would be religion.

Sometimes it’s hard for people to see certain things on Sunday morning, so I thought I’d explain it SAR-style.

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