Lessons in Resilience, from a Navy SEAL

Articles

Eric Greitens begins his new book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, with a powerful story. Greitens, a Navy SEAL, was contacted by a fellow combat veteran, Zach Walker. Walker was facing a personal crisis.

Walker and Greitens had served together in one of the world’s most elite military units, with deployments spanning from Iraq and Afghanistan to Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. When they returned home, they were hailed as heroes.

Then their paths began to diverge. Greitens, a former Rhodes Scholar, resumed an academic career and launched The Mission Continues, a highly successful nonprofit serving veterans. Walker struggled, and when his brother committed suicide, he became troubled that his death was punishment for what had happened in Afghanistan. Walker started to drink excessively, was arrested, and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was in danger of losing his newly formed small business. He was in danger of losing his family.

Walker reached out to Greitens, seeking some kind of help. The two men corresponded in a series of letters, twenty-three of which make up the book. In the letters, Greitens drew on his research, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, which centers on the development of resilient moral character. “These are letters to my friend,” Greitens explains. “But while his story is unique, what he’s up against—loss, fear, a search for purpose—is not. In fact, what he’s up against is universal.”

The book is intended to be practical. Each letter contains a set of thoughts to be reflected upon and digested, serving to nurture the reader’s attitudes and behaviors. Greitens employs a wide range of sources, from the ancient Greek poet and soldier Aeschylus to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote: “Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.” The observation captures an essential attribute of resilience: the ability to move through pain to wisdom, through fear to courage, through suffering to strength.

“The benefits of struggling—of being challenged, afraid, pained, confused—are so precious that if they could be bottled, people would pay dearly for them,” Greitens says. He speaks from personal experience. His first marriage fell apart while he was dedicating himself to military training. He was left with a profound sense of guilt and shame. The experience changed him, helping him to become a more empathic leader and officer. “When I had a guy wake me up in the middle of the night in the Philippines because his wife said she was leaving him, or when one of my guys in Iraq had a kid diagnosed with autism back home—well, I think I understood better what they were facing, and I hope that helped me to be of more help to them. Now a husband and a father, I think I’m more solid and more grateful in ways I might not have been had I never been hurt so badly.”

Another crucial dynamic in the cultivation of resilience is understanding that many of life’s most challenging struggles are not against others—they are against ourselves. Equally important is the realization that while your own struggles are your own, they are not unique. There will be individuals before you who have faced what you face, and there will be individuals who come after you who will face what you face. This chain of experience offers not only a type of solidarity, but also a storehouse of wisdom on suffering, hardship, difficulty, and doubt. There are clues to be discovered in many stories, philosophies, poems, paintings, and songs.

In an article for The New York Observer, Greitens explains, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Since his new book was published in March, Greitens has outlined other suggestions and practices on a range of TV programs, from Today to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Forbes asked Greitens what entrepreneurs can learn from resilience. “Every entrepreneur has to deal with hardship,” explains Greitens, himself a small business leader, “but if we’re tough enough and thoughtful enough, we can find a way to make hard things make us better.”

Greitens knows that there is an art to living well. It can be studied, learned, and practiced. “To be resilient—to build a full and meaningful life of strength, wisdom, and joy—is not easy,” writes Greitens. “But it’s not complicated. We can all do it. To get there, it’s not enough to want to be resilient or to think about being resilient. We have to choose to live a resilient life.”