Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, author of the new book Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life explains the series of events that led him to write the book. He recalls how a close friend, also a SEAL, fell to pieces after deployment to Afghanistan. Resilience takes shape as a series of letters Eric wrote to and received from this friend. Their correspondence shines a light on how academic knowledge based in philosophy can be merged with life experience to overcome strife and build up defenses against trauma. Greitens discusses the process of becoming broken and how even the ostensibly strong still need strategies for dealing with hardship.
Eric Greitens: Everybody has to deal with hardship. Everybody has to deal with struggle. And there’s this great quotation from Hemingway, “The world is a hard place and the world breaks everyone,” he said. “And many are strong at the broken places.” Now people often remember this phrase strong at the broken places, but it’s also important to remember his qualifier — many. Not all are strong at the broken places. And some people when they confront hardship actually end up in a place where they’re helpless. Some people are broken by suffering. Some people are actually really hurt by pain in such a way that they can’t move forward. But it’s also the case that some people deal with hardship and become heroic. And one of the things that I’ve tried to do in these letters to my friend is actually show him what you have to do in a really practical way to actually build resilience and be heroic. Now one of those things is that you have to learn how to take responsibility.
If there was a single question that you can ask someone to measure how resilient they’re going to be, you ask them what are you responsible for? And what you find is that even in the most difficult situations when you look at stories of people who have been prisoners of war, for example, people who survived said I’m going to take control of my thoughts or I’m going to take control of the way that I breathe. There are certain things even though my freedom has been taken away from me, that my ability to eat, where I live, all of these things have been taken away from me, I’m still going to control something. And when you focus on actually taking control of something and what happens is your circle of control begins to widen and people begin to see that even in the face of hardship and difficulty there’s a way for them to build power and live a purposeful life.
So this book came when I was driving down Highway 70 in the middle of Missouri and my buddy Zach Walker called me. Now Zach is a tough kid from a northern California logging family. He was in my BUD/S class, my Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training class. And even in a SEAL training class he was one of the toughest of the tough guys in this class. And we stayed friends after we left the training. He went to the East Coast; I stayed on the West Coast. And he came back from a deployment in Afghanistan and when he came back things were going all right at first. He was a good father to his two young kids. He bought a concrete pumper. He started a small business. And then his life was just hammered by hardship. What happened was his brother died; he lost his business. Then one day he drove his truck into his driveway. He got out of the truck and fell to the ground because he believed that there was a sniper watching him. And he lay there for hours until the sun went down and then he got up and he ran into his house and he realized he had post-traumatic stress disorder. And then he started drinking and on the weekend it was not a six-pack, but a cooler full of beer that he was working on.
And he called me after he’d been arrested. So we had this guy who was a Navy SEAL war hero coming home from Afghanistan who now is the unemployed alcoholic on disability who’s looking at having his kids come to visit him in jail. And we talked a lot that night. When I got home I started writing him a letter. He wrote back to me and we did this for months with letters back and forth. And the book now is a series of edited letters to my friend Zach Walker about how you can take a lot of this wisdom that’s in our philosophical and religious traditions, how you can take a lot of wisdom from your own experience and use it to build a resilient life.