“To Be the Federation”: The True Self in Ministry and Star Trek: Discovery


Image from Star Trek: Discovery: What’s this got to do with the article? Not a whole lot. I just think this ship is really cool.

I was having a conversation a few nights ago with a friend of mine about the series Star Trek: Discovery, and the question came up, “what was the mission of Discovery?”

We first looked at the missions of the other Star Trek series. The mission of the original ’60’s series was clear from the onset: “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s mission was, well, to keep on doing that. Star Trek: Voyager‘s mission was much more simple and clear cut: to go home, no matter how long it took. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s mission took a little more thinking, but we decided that it was “to serve and protect”, seeing that it served as a frontier outpost and sheriff’s office (I had always thought it was “to boldly stay in one place”). Star Trek: Enterprise? Well, I never got far enough in to that one to figure out what its mission was.

So what was the mission of the USS Discovery? On one level, it was to test and refine new interstellar transportation technology: the “spore drive”. On another level, it was to serve as the secret weapon in the Federation’s arsenal against the Klingons. The more we talked about it though, it became clear that neither of these was the real mission of the Discovery, or at least its crew. As you see the series develop, it becomes clear that while the crew of the Discovery have a job to do, their primary, intrinsic mission is “to be the Federation”. They are called to do the right thing at all times, regardless of cost. They are called to protect life, even life that might harm them. They are called to be loyal and keep their promises. This mission “to be the Federation” is much harder to measure or quantify, or even explain to someone else. But it also moves beyond seeing “mission” as “job description” to seeing “mission” as “source of meaning, purpose and hope”.

This sense of “mission” as source of meaning is extremely important to us as human beings. Often we can tie our sense of meaning and identity to extrinsic things, such as our job or our possessions. When the self is tied to these things, there can be a significant crisis of identity and purpose when they are taken away.

Yesterday I met with the husband (let’s call him “Ken”) of one of our patients for a counseling session. His wife suffers from advanced dementia which has progressed over several years, and they both live in a senior assisted living community. During our visit the talk ranged across a wide range of troubles, of which we have no shortage in 2020. He expressed feeling that life in general had lost it’s meaning and purpose. He could no longer do what he wanted when he wanted. His wife no longer recognized or communicated with him meaningfully. His faith had languished because it had served more as a social network and rule system than a moral or spiritual framework. His identity seemed focused on his ability to do and control, and now that he could now do and control very little he had reached an existential crisis.

I asked him, after listening reflectively to him for a long time, what it was that gave him hope. He looked stunned. After a few moments of silence, he said, “I don’t know, no one’s ever asked me that before.”

He did then say that his children and grandchildren give him hope and joy, but he added, “but they live their own lives now – I can’t really tell them what to do and I don’t have any control over them.” I responded, “Ken, this is probably the one thing you do have control over. You can’t control politics, the coronavirus, or the management here at the facility. You can control how you interact with your family and your grandkids. How do you show your kids that you love them?” Again, he was stunned. As we talked it was clear that this was new territory for him, land that he was uncomfortable setting foot into.

In psychology we see that some people define themselves by external factors while other by internal ones. Identifying one’s self primarily by external factors such as job or status is typically easier, but can lead to a lack of meaning and fulfillment overall. A great deal of time and energy is spent on controlling these external factors in order to keep them in place or improve them because the self is reflected in them. However over time those external indicators change: jobs are lost, people die or leave, fortunes dissolve. Those who define themselves by more internal factors tend to have more strength and resiliency though because their sense of self is not tied to things that they can or cannot control. This is what Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton call the “true self”. Going back to Star Trek: Discovery, it’s “being the Federation”: much harder to define, but ultimately much more enduring and foundational.

Mission in this sense goes beyond a sense of “what I do” to “who I am” and “who we are”. It helps shape our identity as well as our trajectory. All too often though we equate our identity with our trajectory. A prayer by Merton reads,

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following Your Will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

Our identity, our true self, doesn’t lie in our next goal to be accomplished or in some trophy to be won. Basing our identity on these things can give us a sense of control and power when we are able to accomplish what we want to do. However these trophies soon tarnish and lose their value, and we feel the need to replace them with shinier trophies and other things that tell us that we are still in control and that my value is based on my doing. The hard truth is, as Ken is learning, that all trophies lose their value. We ultimately don’t have as much control of things as we think we do.

Even we chaplains are susceptible to this. We can feel compelled to get the person we are with to do something – even something like “feel better” – or to solve some sort of problem that we see in their lives. The desire to fix is probably the greatest obstacle chaplains struggle with, especially when that desire to fix includes the desire to fix ourselves. Releasing the need to control the other person’s outcomes, which involves ultimately controlling them, is critical to the chaplain’s role.

The need to release control over the things we can’t control is important in discovering our true self, including our self in God. The shock comes when we realize how little we do actually control. The hard confrontation with that reality may lead some to despair, but it doesn’t have to. In Merton’s prayer we see an embrace of this reality and an acceptance of himself as himself. His value comes, in his eyes, not from pleasing God (an external focus) but from the desire to please God (an internal focus). When I asked Ken how he showed his children that he loved them I was trying to nudge him in this direction. It’s a frightening and difficult place to move to, because it requires we give up the assurance of knowing (or thinking we know to be more accurate) as well as the illusion of control we may have.

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