Monday, July 6, 2015

Time for Resilience / Navy SEAL's Wisdom

Review by Bill Doughty

There can be happiness in struggle as long as fear doesn't cripple us from making good choices and taking positive action.

That's the conclusion of Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Eric Greitens, author of "Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). This book is filled with philosophy and insights from the Greeks, Romans, Enlightenment thinkers and BUD/S training – all geared to understanding and promoting 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 you have the virtue of resilience. People have known this for thousands of years. But today a lot of this ancient wisdom goes unheeded. In my work with other veterans who have overcome injuries and loss – the loss of limbs, the loss of comrades, the loss of purpose – I have heard one thing over and over again: their moments of darkness often led, in time, to their days of greatest growth."
Then-Lt. Greitens in Iraq
Greitens's book is structured as a series of letters to a fellow SEAL suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome. The author offers practical advice based on esoteric lessons of life through history. In one example he shows how ancient Roman hero Cato, who fought against the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, trained his body and mind. He would become an inspiration to the founders of the United States, including George Washington, whose army showed remarkable resilience in 1776.

Whether in war, in business or at home, "resilience is the key to a well-lived life."
"If you want to be happy, you need resilience. If you want to be successful, you need resilience. You need resilience because you can't have happiness, success, or anything else worth having without meeting hardship along the way."
In a thoughtful piece in Time magazine early last month Mandy Oaklander reported that the study of resilience started after World War II by Ann Masten, examining the effects of war on displaced and traumatized men, women and children. Why did some bounce back despite the hardships they had endured?

Another researcher, Emmy E. Werner, of the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several publications related to her work, began a 40-year study in 1955.  She followed "nearly 700 children in Kauai, Hawaii, many of whom had alcoholic parents," and finding that one-third of the most at-risk children fared exceptionally well over time due to three factors:

  • A tight-knit community,
  • A stable role model and
  • A strong belief in their ability to solve problems.

You can see how that applies in Greitens's world: The SEALs provide the tight-knit community; good leaders, instructors and shipmates provide stable role models; and a culture of honor, courage and commitment provides the belief in self. Other groups have their own systems of support.

Studies of resilience were conducted with U.S. Prisoners of War from Vietnam in the 70s. They used their only "two resources – free time and their minds" to creatively and imaginatively escape inward and retain hope in the face of stress and fear.

Wounded Warriors train in Hawaii. Photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman
The military is at the forefront of studying resilience. Researcher Martin Paulus of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla. has performed brain-imaging experiments to demonstrate resilience. His subjects have included Marine infantry platoons training in San Diego and Navy SEALs. 

Not surprisingly, the SEALs demonstrated exceptional abilities in mindfulness and controlling fear. Scientists are proving the importance of the link between exercising the body and exercising the mind in building neurobiological strength and resilience.

Oaklander and Time refer to the work of Drs. Dennis Charney, Dean of Icahn School of Medicine, and Steven Southwick, of Yale School of Medicine, authors of the 2012 book "Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges," to be updated and republished this year with new research.

One size may not fit all when it comes to achieving resilience, but a common theme in the Time article and the Greitens book is the importance of controlling fear.

From Greitens:
"Fear can make human beings do amazing things. Fear can help you to see your world clearly in a way that you never have before. Fear becomes destructive when it drives us to do things that are unwise or unhelpful. Fear becomes destructive when it begins to cloud our vision. But like most emotions, fear is destructive only when it runs wild. Embrace the fear that comes from accepting responsibility, and use it to propel yourself to become the person you choose to be."
Read my Navy Reads post "Faith, Fear and Tom Hanks" for another view of how toxic, corrosive fear can be countered with wisdom and reason and why it's important to support our veterans. 

With humility and a caring attitude Greitens gives advice and "practical wisdom" gained through the ages in order to "focus your mind, control your stress and excel under pressure."
"Pain can break us or make us wiser. Suffering can destroy us or make us stronger. Fear can cripple us, or it can make us more courageous. It is resilience that makes the difference."
This book is endorsed by retired Admiral Mike Mullens, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Chief of Naval Operations, who developed the first Navy Professional Reading Program. Another supporter who endorses the book and the work of Eric Greitens is producer/director/writer J.J. Abrams, who is recharging the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.

"Resilience" is a good companion to help understand the pain, fear and suffering endured by the sailors and civilians who go north in Hampton Sides's "In the Kingdom of Ice," recently reviewed on Navy Reads.

No comments: