The ability to balance one’s professional role with one’s family responsibilities is one of the core issues depicted in American Sniper, an unnerving film about US Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, who was credited with 160 kills, more than any other sniper in history. His success as a sniper, however, is not simply achieved. To protect a fellow soldier, he may have to kill a woman or child. He may have to pull the trigger when he has a doubt about the intentions of his target. Is the target on the phone talking to his girlfriend or is he giving instructions to a terrorist poised to shoot an American soldier? There is moral ambiguity, and this creates great stress.
When Chris is a child, his father lectures him about the existence of evil people in the world, and his words resonate when Chris watches the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks on television. It motivates him to want to do something to protect America. Chris visits a US Navy recruiting station and decides to enroll in the SEAL program, which involves a rigorous training regimen. The training program includes learning how to be a sniper, at which Chris excels because of his early hunting experiences with his father.
During this training period, he meets Taya with whom he falls in love. They marry, but on their wedding day receive word that he will be deployed to Iraq. It is a mission that excites him, for it will give a real chance to serve his country.
When he leaves for Iraq, Taya is pregnant with their first child. When they talk by phone, they share their longing for one another, but Kyle does not talk about what he does in the military. Moreover, he does not want her to know about the atrocities he witnesses in Iraq.
Possessing a deep commitment to serve his country, Kyle serves four tours of duty, becoming a legend as the most successful sniper in American history. As time passes, his zeal for battle service increases. As his passion to protect his comrades in arms grows, he becomes more and more disconnected from family until one day Taya rebukes him: “I need you to be human again. I need you here.”
Kyle is challenged to find meaning to the normal flow of everyday life, away from the threatening battles of Iraq. Transitioning from a sniper into a normal husband and father is not easy. American Sniper reminds us that a healthy life needs to be a life of balance between one’s professional goals and the demands of raising a family. It is an echo of what the great medieval sage, Maimonides, said many years ago when he spoke about pursuing the golden mean and avoiding extremes.
A Torah teacher of mine was a master at balancing his myriad responsibilities as a graduate instructor of complex Talmud texts and as a father of six children. When I visited him in his home in the 1960s, I noticed that on his mantelpiece he had photos of his kids wearing Little League baseball uniforms. It was the first and only time that I witnessed a Torah teacher whose children were attired in such dress. When I asked one of his sons many years later why these pictures occupied such a prominent place in his home, he told me “my father wanted to keep us normal.” His father and mother valued scholarship, but they valued good character more, which is often nurtured on the ball field through good sportsmanship and developing solid interpersonal relationships.
Achieving balance in life does not mean giving equal time and energy to one’s work and family. Rather, achieving balance requires us to look at how we prioritize our tasks, and, in a nuanced way, navigate the many challenges we face professionally and personally. American Sniper encourages us to achieve balance in life by putting family first.