In 2012, Eric Greitens got an unexpected call from a former Navy SEAL comrade. Zach Walker had returned from the war to his young family, but things weren’t going well. He suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and had turned to heavy drinking to numb his pain.
Things took a turn for the worse when Walker’s brother died in a car accident. Walker’s concrete business failed, and he got arrested for a drinking incident. Facing a bleak future, Walker called Greitens for help.
Eric Greitens is a Navy SEAL, a member of one of the world’s most elite special operations forces. He is also a Rhodes Scholar, boxing champion, the founder of the non-profit The Mission Continues, and a PhD from Oxford University.
Drawing on his own life experiences, as well as from sources as diverse as Epictetus to Viktor Frankl, Greitens started writing to Walker about how to overcome adversity and live a flourishing life.
Those letters were eventually collected into a book; Resilience: Hard-won Wisdom for Living a Better Life. It is not your average self-help book. Resilience is part correspondence, part memoir, and part introduction to philosophy, and Greitens writes with the mind of a philosopher, the soul of a poet and the heart of a warrior.
The Key to a Flourishing Life is Resilience
The key to a flourishing life, Greitens tells Walker, is the virtue of resilience:
Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength — if we have the virtue of resilience.Eric Greitens, Resilience
The Greek philosophers believed that virtue — arête — is an excellence, something that can be practiced; “Aristotle taught that we aren’t born with virtue; we’re born with the ability to practice virtue.” Greitens advises Walker that resilience is the same:
You weren’t born with resilience, any more than you were born with the ability to use a compass or aim a rifle. Resilience is an excellence we build. We can practice it in the choices we make and the actions we take. After enough practice, resilience becomes part of who we are.Eric Greitens, Resilience
So how does one practice resilience? Greitens tells Walker that life is messy, and while he can give Walker some ideas, there are no set formulas or guarantees. A person has to find her own strategies and apply them to her own life.
And it starts, as it always does, with taking responsibility.
Too often, when we talk about the challenges we face, that our children face, that our coworkers and colleagues and friends and fellow citizens face, we begin with a description of the world. We name and describe all the things that have contributed to our difficulties. What we usually overlook (or ignore) is what we have done to contribute to the situation. To put it another way, at the centre of everything that happens to you is you.
So let’s make an obvious point: you are the place you need to start if you want to become stronger in the face of adversity.Eric Greitens, Resilience
Resilience, the point is made, is different from survival. Surviving through adversity is different from thriving through struggle, and the key difference is a reason.
Resilience is distinct from mere survival, and more than mere endurance. Resilience is often endurance with direction. Where are you headed? Why are you going there?
No one, of course, can give you your “why.” This letter certainly can’t do that for you. You have to create your “why.”
Start by asking yourself: Where am I headed?
It’s not enough to want to be resilient. What do you want it for? What are you enduring for?Eric Greitens, Resilience
It’s a lesson that Greitens has seen for himself out in the real world:
When I was twenty, I lived and worked in a Bosnian refugee camp. All the refugees had seen brutality and destruction. They had lost everything they ever owned. Many had lost friends and family … Everyone suffered … But I was struck by one thing. It seemed that the people who were doing best in the camp were often the parents and grandparents of very young children. They knew they had to wake up every day and be strong for someone else.
… The people who did the best, in other words, found a way to live for something at a time when a lot of people around them didn’t know why they were alive at all.Eric Greitens, Resilience
Resilience is not a ‘loud’ book, in that it doesn’t scream to have ‘9 secrets of highly resilient people’ laid out in a bulletproof plan. Instead, it’s a quieter book of letters, from one friend to another, and because of that it’s a far more intimate and thoughtful book. The passages invite you to slow down, to let the words seep, and for you to reflect on them.
Life Lessons Wrapped in Steel
And while Greitens never loses compassion for his friend Walker, there are no soft words in this book. Greitens’ advice is rooted in practicality and wrapped in a warrior’s steel. Greitens recalls how he was taught by Will Guild, a command master chief with more than 30 years’ experience in the SEAL Teams, how important it is to see things as they are:
Will taught us that resilient people adapt well to what is happening around them. To do that, though, they have to understand clearly what is happening, without self-deception, too much optimism, or too much pessimism. They have to see the world around them as it actually is.Eric Greitens, Resilience
A perfect example of this realism comes when Greitens advises Walker to value results over intentions. He writes:
When the genocide was happening in Rwanda in 1994, I remember that many people around the world were shocked and outraged. Many people wanted to help. I also remember that their wanting didn’t matter.
There was a great dividing line between all of the speeches, protests, feelings, empathy, good wishes, and words in the world, and the one thing that could stop the violence: protecting people through the use of force or the threat of force. In situations like this, good intentions and heartfelt wishes were not enough. The great dividing line between words and results was courageous action. One of the greatest gulfs in life is between sounding good and doing good.
We are ultimately measured by our results, by the way our actions shape the world around us. Without results, all the kind intentions in the world are just a way of entertaining ourselves.Eric Greitens, Resilience
And when he writes about facing pain, Greitens takes to task the idea that a good life can ever be lived without pain:
When some people see a world full of suffering and joy, pain and wisdom, they wish for more of the good stuff (joy, delight, rest, ecstasy, courage, compassion, love) and less of the bad (hardship, struggle, weariness, pain). Plenty of false prophets of “success” and “happiness” play on this hope. They promise that pills can change you, that tricks can save you from hard work, that achievement and fulfilment can be yours if you simply think enough happy thoughts.
Yet there is wisdom much older than their cheap promises that is likely to outlast them. Most of our enduring religious stories, our great works of literature, and our most compelling philosophies have a different answer to the question of pain. They tell us that there is no shortcut around it …
… For all of us, the path to wisdom runs through the dark wood of pain … the way to deal with pain is not to imagine a magical land where pain doesn’t exist, but to find a way to face it with courage.Eric Greitens, Resilience
It is not masochistic suffering that automatically creates a stronger person, however, but how we deal with the pain that makes the difference. Resilience is the work that transforms suffering into wisdom, and doing the work is worth it. Greitens believes that resilience is “ … the key to a well-lived life.”
To master a skill, to build an enterprise, to pursue any worthy endeavour — simply to live a good life — requires that we confront pain, hardship, and fear. What is the difference between those who are defeated by hardship and those who are sharpened by it? Between those who are broken by pain and those who are made wiser by it?
To move through pain to wisdom, through fear to courage, through suffering to strength, requires resilience.Eric Greitens, Resilience
I found Resilience: Hard-won Wisdom for Living a Better Life a unique book, written by a modern-day warrior-philosopher, on how to overcome adversity, turn suffering into triumph, and live a flourishing life. It is a powerful book for building, as Greitens quotes Edith Hamilton in it, a “fortress of the spirit.”
Featured image “Combat Rubber Raiding Craft manned by SEAL Team 5” by PH3 John Sullivan, USN – DoDMedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.