‘Pain can break us or make us wiser,” Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, writes in his new book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life. “Suffering can destroy us or make us stronger,” he continues. “Fear can cripple us, or it can make us more courageous.” And, as you might have guessed from the title: “It is resilience that makes the difference.” The book began as a series of letters between himself and a friend, Zach, with whom he had served in Afghanistan. Zach called Greitens around the time Zach was about to hit bottom, having lost his brother and his business, having taken to drinking and had just gotten arrested. Greitens talks about the book and his experience of resilience. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is it typical for a Navy Seal to have been a Rhodes scholar and to be an Oxford Ph.D.?
Eric Greitens: It’s a different route into the SEAL teams, for sure. One of the great things about the SEAL teams in particular, and the American military in general, is the tremendous diversity of backgrounds and experience that people bring to their service. The U.S. military may well be the best-integrated large institution on the planet. You have people from every corner of the country, every ethnic background, every walk of life, and we all come together to serve. It’s a real testament to E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one.
Lopez: What is resilience exactly? It’s more than merely enduring? More than merely bouncing back after a hard time?
Greitens: 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.
Resilience is distinct from mere survival, and more than mere endurance. Resilience is often endurance with direction. And yes, resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate those experiences into their lives.
Lopez: What does bouncing back have to do with physics?
Greitens: If you look up “resilience” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the first definitions you’ll find is this: “capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation, especially if the strain is caused by compressive stresses — called also elastic resilience.” Resilience as elasticity: That’s a physics definition, but when most people think of resilience as it applies to humans, they still have some variation of this definition in their minds. They think that resilience means “recovery” or “bouncing back” after stress.
They think that resilient people are the same before and after hardship. If we limit our understanding of resilience to this idea of bouncing back, we miss much of what hardship, pain, and suffering offer us. We also misunderstand our basic human capacity to change and improve. Life’s reality is that we cannot bounce back. We cannot bounce back, because we cannot go back in time to the people we used to be. The parent who loses a child never bounces back. The 19-year-old marine who sails for war is gone forever, even if he returns. “What’s done cannot be undone,” and some of what life does to us is harsh.
There is no bouncing back. There is only moving through. Fortunately, to be resilient we don’t need to go back in time. What happens to us becomes part of us. In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.
Lopez: Who needs resilience? How do you get to the point of really realizing it?
Greitens: Everyone needs resilience. It’s a virtue essential to growth and essential to happiness. I do think that people begin to appreciate the importance of resilience when they have experience to know that life can be tough. And I think that they begin to really appreciate resilience when they have enough experience to see that sometimes those things that are hardest for us can actually be good for us if we have the tools we need to move through suffering to strength.
Lopez: How did Homer help your friend Mike?
Greitens: I’ve never seen anyone more moved by the Odyssey than my friend Mike, who served with me in Iraq. When Mike came home to a life without purpose and without direction, one of his friends committed suicide. Mike picked up Homer, and he discovered that, as long as there has been war, warriors have found the journey home, the journey back to normal, as trying as battle itself. Mike saw that people have walked this path for thousands of years. They’ve earned wisdom, and it’s waiting for you.
Part of what I’ve done in Resilience is simply draw from a lot of that ancient wisdom. One of the most famous scholars of the ancient world — and, I think, one of the most insightful — was Edith Hamilton. She wrote: “When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages. The eternal perspectives are being blotted out, and our judgment of immediate issues will go wrong unless we bring them back.” I want to call your attention to one of Hamilton’s phrases: “fortresses of the spirit.” Cut off from the wisdom of the past, we can feel overwhelmed by the incessant clatter of the present. But look: Those who went before us left us a gift. And in Resilience we draw on a lot of that ancient wisdom in a practical way to show how it applies to how we can live today.
Lopez: How does your friend Zach Walker feel about his problems now being on bookshelves?
Greitens: Zach’s really excited about the book, and he’s hopeful that my sharing these letters to him will help other people who might be struggling in the way that Zach was. Maybe they’re struggling to build a sense of purpose, maybe they are struggling with loss, with fear, with uncertainty.
Lopez: What seems most striking about your book is the pure time you put into a relationship you didn’t have to. This wasn’t originally a book. This was one man helping another. How much of the point of it is just that? Spend time with one another. Gratuitously so, even?
Greitens: I love Zach. He’s a great friend. When he called, he was in trouble and needed help. So I helped him. That’s what friends do for each other.
And in helping Zach, I grew as well. One of the things that I learned from all of my work — serving in the SEAL teams, working with veterans, and humanitarian work with families that had lost their homes and with children who had been abandoned and abused — is that people need to serve a purpose beyond themselves, even, perhaps especially, when things are hard.
Outer service often leads to inner growth, and this process of helping Zach made both of us stronger.
Lopez: To what extent do you hope that this book will better expose both what so many soldiers suffer today and how to help them?
Greitens: Well, there’s been a lot written about how soldiers struggle to make the transition home. They often lose a sense of purpose, they are no longer surrounded by a team.
This, it turns out, isn’t just a problem for veterans. Many people struggle. Athletes who leave the game because of injury or the natural decay of their skills struggle. People who lose their jobs struggle. Workers who retire and can’t think of how to fill their days struggle. Elderly people who outlive their friends struggle.
What, they all wonder, am I here for now? The challenge for the veteran — and for anyone suddenly deprived of purpose — is not simply to overcome trauma but to rebuild meaning.
In Resilience we write about how, in a very practical way, people build meaning in their lives.
Lopez: Why is the concept of “frontlines” so important even for the non-vet?
Greitens: As a Navy SEAL, you understood the word “frontline” to mean the place where you met the enemy. The frontline was where battles were fought and fates decided. The frontline was a place of fear, struggle, and suffering. It was also a place where victories were won, where friendships of a lifetime were forged in hardship. It was a place where we lived with a sense of purpose.
But “frontline” isn’t just a military term. All of us have a place where we encounter fear, where we struggle, suffer, and face hardship. We all have battles to fight. And it’s often in those battles that we are most alive: it’s on the frontlines of our lives that we earn wisdom, create joy, forge friendships, discover happiness, find love, and do purposeful work. If you want to win any meaningful kind of victory, you’ll have to fight for it.
Lopez: Why does “ancient wisdom” about virtue often go “unheeded”?
Greitens: First, because a lot of people simply aren’t exposed to it anymore. A lot of what’s in the book would have been familiar to the Founding Fathers. It would have been familiar even to people who went to school some 60 years ago. But as curriculums have changed, a lot of this ancient wisdom isn’t taught as it used to be.
What I did for my friend Zach, and what we do in the book, is make all of that ancient wisdom very relatable. It comes in the form of common sense and practical advice in letters to a friend. And while it’s hard-won wisdom that comes from a deep place, what is ultimately so hopeful is that all of the suggestions are about things you can put to use in your life right now.
Lopez: What do you mean when you say, “When things are tough, a mantra does more good than a manifesto”?
Greitens: When we’re struggling, we don’t need a book in our hands. We need the right words in our minds. We need to have knowledge that we can carry with us — not in books or in our phones, but in our hearts and our minds.
That’s why in my letters to Zach I divide each letter into brief thoughts. And I try to divide each thought further still until we get to some tightly wound common sense that can be easily carried.
The value in the words comes only when people can use them. That’s why I encourage people to scribble notes in the margins. Underline. Highlight. Think about your own life as you read. The point, after all, is not just to read. The point is to read in a way that leads to better thinking, and to think in a way that leads to better living.
Lopez: Do we need a cultural confrontation with our relationship with suffering?
Greitens: Yes. Fear is a proper emotion. Anxiety is essential to a well-lived life. Hardship and change and chaos and difficulty and suffering are part of every good life.
The desire to rid ourselves of fear, anxiety, worry, stress — it comes from a place of kindness. But it’s often kind poison, and efforts to offer excuses to people and to make life worry-free can actually do a lot of damage to people who are trying to live well.
Lopez: When you wrote to Walker that he has “the potential for a joyous journey ahead” if he’s willing to take responsibility for his life, did he believe you?
Greitens: Yes. He did. But trust is earned. Walker knew that I’d guided him through a lot of tough stuff before, and he knew that I and my team had guided hundreds of people through similar struggles. And of course Walker had helped me through some tough spots as well. So when I told him that things could get better even though they looked so awful — he believed me.
Lopez: Why is humility so important for resilience?
Greitens: Because resilience is about growth in the face of hardship. If you start with humility, you see every person as your teacher. If you start with humility, you recognize that you have something to learn. Humility enables you to grow.
Lopez: What do you mean when you write, “When things are hard, sometimes the best thing you can do is drown what’s wrong in a sea of what’s right”? And how to start?
Greitens: Too often, when things go wrong, people focus only on the problems in front of them. One of the reasons why gratitude is such an important virtue in building both resilience and happiness is that a practice of gratitude reminds of how much we have to be thankful for. It can also remind us of our strengths. This isn’t to suggest that you want to ignore problems. You need to address things that are seriously harmful. But often the best way to address them is by multiplying what’s already working in your life.
A lot of leaders, especially, begin with a mechanical mindset: find what’s missing or broken and replace or repair it. But in many social systems, the trick isn’t to repair what’s broken but to multiply what’s working. In a situation of malnutrition, you ask, Who has well-fed children? Working with people who’ve been hurt, you can ask, Who’s been injured and is still working? Who lost friends and is still serving?
If you can fix something that needs to be fixed, go ahead and fix it. But real leadership is most often needed where simple solutions have already been tried and have failed. When things are hard, sometimes the best thing you can do is to drown what’s wrong in a sea of what’s right. And the way to begin is simply to ask yourself: What’s working? Then, understand why it’s working, and figure out how you can make more happen.
Lopez: Would you like to think you’re a sign of hope for the parents of young children who climb out the window during their religious instruction?
Greitens: I hope so. I certainly tried my parents’ patience. Ultimately, though, I did get a solid religious education growing up, and it’s made me stronger.
Lopez: How important is God for resilience?
Greitens: For me, I believe strongly that a sense of purpose beyond yourself is essential to resilience.
A lot of people who are struggling get caught up in how. How am I going to run my business, or feed my family, or recover from this injury, or make it without the person I loved, or find a new job. Those are hard and important questions. The more powerful question, though, is why.
It’s been said that if you have the right why you can make it through any how.
Lopez: I was quite moved by your humility mantra. You wrote in your letter to Zach Walker that sharing it with him left you a little exposed. Now with the reading public! Why is the exposure worthwhile? Do you really see everyone as your teacher? Surely we sometimes disappoint and turn out to be pretty bad teachers?
Greitens: I think it’s important to emphasize how essential humility is both to good living and to good leadership. And I hope that by reflecting on humility in the letters that I’ll be helpful to other people who are trying to build resilience. And yes, I do believe that every person is better than I in some way. Everyone has some wisdom, some experience, some knowledge that I don’t have. Everyone has something to teach.
And sure, sometimes people can disappoint, but far more often I’ve found that people whom others overlook are possessed of incredible strength and ability. There are a lot of people out there who have something to offer; they just haven’t been asked. I believe that if you respect someone, then you recognize that they have something to contribute.
Lopez: How is being a Navy Seal compatible with someone who has done humanitarian work in the likes of Rwanda and Cambodia?
Greitens: To live well takes both courage and compassion. Without courage, compassion falters. Without compassion, courage has no direction. We need both to live a good life. And I’d say that most of the warriors I most admire bring that same sensibility to life. In some ways, being tough, they feel free to also be caring.
What you saw in Rwanda, where over 800,000 people died in a genocide as the world watched, was that it wasn’t enough to talk about wanting to help people. The great dividing line between words and results is courageous action. If we really care about people, then we’re willing to act with discipline and courage to help them.
Lopez: An earlier book of yours was The Warrior’s Heart: Becoming a Man of Compassion and Courage. How does one do that? Are there universal guideposts and rules? How does a former Navy Seal do that in a particular way?
Greitens: Shaping our character is one of the most important things that we can do in life. It’s hard, but it’s not complicated. We become what we do if we do it often enough. We act with courage, and we become courageous. We act with compassion, and we become compassionate. If we make resilient choices, we become resilient.
To do this really well requires that we have good models. That’s why I also talk in the book about why you need a model in your life at any age, and about how we can find one.
Lopez: Why did you feel the need to tell your friend Walker he’s going to die? The dude was a Navy Seal, He probably knows that.
Greitens: Yep. He knew. I know. You know. We all know. But we’re pretty darned good at forgetting it. Forget too long and you can spend a lifetime postponing and procrastinating. You can put off the life you want to live until you wake up to find that it’s too late. You study but never act. You plan but never travel. You think it, but never tell anyone you love them.
At the same time, if it’s important that we don’t forget the fact of our death, it’s also important that we don’t fixate on it. The best analogy I’ve ever heard about this says that death is like the sun. It infuses every part of our lives, but it doesn’t make sense to stare at it. The urgency that comes from the limited span of our lives pushes us to find meaning in the time we have. But fearing death, obsessing over it, staring directly at it, blinds us to the possibilities of living. The resilient person learns to live with the knowledge of death without being overcome by it.
Lopez: Why do you hope people read this, and what do you hope they most get out of it?
Greitens: It’s simple: You can build resilience in your life.
When we build resilience in our lives, we come to see that pain is not something to be eliminated so that we can have joy, any more than fear is something to be eliminated so that we can have courage. Courage overcomes fear but does not replace it. Joy overcomes pain but does not replace it. When we realize this, we feel the moments when we meet our limitations not as times to retreat but as opportunities for happiness, meaning, engagement, exploration, creativity, achievement, beauty, and love.