Columbus Day, of course, commemorates the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and, for me, the spirit of exploration in general.
Sometimes, though, the most important journeys and the most vital explorations don’t traverse vast distances, but instead turn inward toward the vast vista that is the human soul.
I recently came across the fine war film “God is My Co-Pilot” — the story of Robert Lee Scott Jr.’s exploits with the Air Force’s Flying Tigers of World War II. It resonated with me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the title itself. It brought back memories of my own struggles to overcome a string of obstacles in becoming a Navy SEAL. Only God wasn’t my co-pilot for that journey. He became my pilot.
I’d suffered a serious hip injury in a parachuting accident, the same hip I’d had surgically repaired as a young boy after doctors told me I might never walk again. After 18 months of casts, crutches and leg braces, I not only walked again, I also ran and eventually graduated BUD/S training to become a SEAL a decade later. If I could overcome that, I could overcome this, right? Not so fast.
“It’s even worse than we thought,” the doctor said, the MRI scans of my hip spread out on the desk before him. “Whatever surgical remedy we choose, you can’t be a SEAL anymore.”
I’d come into his office to discuss options for surgery, only to hear there weren’t really any viable options at all, at least in his mind. My wife had been putting on my socks for the past six months because I couldn’t. It was taking over two minutes to get out of the car, just to stand up.
I ended up sitting on a bench and thinking to myself: I don’t think I can do this. I’m lost, I’m at the bottom of the barrel, and there’s no way I can come back from this. It had taken so much willpower, so much anger, and so much determination to get me through everything else up until this point that I just didn’t think I had anything left. I was done.
Mentally, physically, and most of all spiritually, I gave up right there while sitting on that bench. I relinquished my pride and, in a crucial point of demarcation, gave myself up to God. Told Him right then and there, “All right, I surrender my life to You; it’s no longer mine. And from now on, it’s not my will that matters, it’s Yours. Where I go from here is up to You.”
I’d spent a good portion of my life proving people wrong about me. But I was doing it for me, for my own ego, to make them eat crow. I’d set goals for myself that kept me going and kept me working, because of the achievements I wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t about serving God — it was about serving myself. And I was so headstrong about doing everything on my own that I was losing touch with my soul in the process.
On the bench that day, I realized that attitude had taken me as far as it could. I needed a different one if I was going to endure the aftermath of surgery and get back to the business of being a SEAL. In that moment, everything changed.
I was no longer wrestling with my will and aspirations for myself, versus God’s will and His aspirations for me. In that moment of realization, we created a path together where I could know what He wanted from me and how I could best serve Him. It was all about faith, about the willingness to give myself up to something greater, so that I might become something greater, too, in the process. And the means for achieving that were where the true blessing lay, not with the ends.
I let God take over piloting the ship of my life through the challenging waters in which I found myself. I underwent hip replacement surgery a few months later, not a single doctor involved believing I had any chance to return to active duty as a SEAL. After the surgery was over, the doctor came in and told me that of all the hips he had worked on, in all the years, mine was the worst he’d ever seen.
“You must’ve been in pain for a long, long time,” he said.
“Since I was a boy,” I told him.
“And you still became a SEAL?” he asked, shaking his head in disbelief. “You inspire me to be a better doctor!”
“I’m still a SEAL. And I’m going to serve as one.”
God found me — just as He’ll find others similarly struck down by life’s challenges.
I deployed to Iraq, where I served my country and my SEAL teammates the best I could, never straying from the path I knew God had forged for me. I wrote the book, “No Surrender: Faith, Family, and Finding Your Way” (2017) because I wanted to help others find their way, just as I had found mine. Or maybe I should say because God found me — just as I believe He’ll find others similarly struck down by life’s challenges.
So on this Columbus Day, if your life isn’t where you want it to be, if you aren’t feeling fulfilled, consider embarking on an inward journey with God’s direction as your road map. Because God guides all of us, ready to pilot our lives from the cockpit of the bumpy ride known as life. All we have to do is listen.
Patrick Bisher is a decorated Navy SEAL and served in Iraq. He is also the author of “No Surrender: Faith, Family, and Finding Your Way” (Post Hill Press, July 2017) and is based in the Detroit area.