I just started reading the New York Times best-seller Resilience: Hard-won Wisdom for Living a Better Life by humanitarian (and former Navy SEAL) Eric Greitens.
The book is a series of letters from Greitens to a SEAL comrade, Zach Walker. Born in Northern California to a logging family, Walker had been a strong, tough kid. Later he became a strong and tough soldier, one that retained his rugged “I’m itching to wrestle a mountain lion” aura even in his dress uniform and polished boots.
I can’t even imagine what it must take to impress a SEAL. But this mountain man impressed Greitens. Walker’s physical and moral courage was, Greitens wrote, of ancient, enduring metal. Or maybe not metal; maybe instead an ossified oak from ancient days.
Because amid a group of legendary tough guys, Walker was considered as tough and durable as oak. Greitens wrote, “If you’ve ever thought, ‘If I was ever in a really tight spot, I could call…,’ I hope you have someone in your life like Zach Walker.”1
And yet, Walker’s combat experiences left wounds so deep that they still plagued him a decade later. Back in his Northern California town he struggled to put his life together, weighed down by alcoholism and a brother’s suicide. PTSD symptoms compelled him to dive for cover from invisible snipers in the trees. From overseas war hero, he became an unemployed husband and father on disability, stumbling through life in a boozy fog. At one point, he ended up in court and on his way to jail.
That’s when he and Greitens started writing letters. The letters were not just about the war, but about how life sometimes feels like a war to us all. Greitens spoke to him about resilience, the topic I have chosen to study this year.
In his letters, Greitens said that all suffering and pain can basically be placed into one of two main camps: 1) the suffering we seek and 2) the suffering that seeks us.
The suffering we seek
We feel pain and suffering in the pursuit of hard-won goals: study, training, and pushing ourselves in any aspect of life.
I think most would agree that we don’t really struggle to find meaning in the suffering we seek. Rather we believe the work set out before us – we could also call it our “purpose” – has such great meaning that we willingly suffer in order to achieve it. The meaning comes before, and often causes, the suffering.
We are not surprised by this kind of suffering at all; in fact we expect it and are pleased when it comes because it often heralds the desired change: aching muscles mean the knitting of new muscle fibers, aching brain cells mean the knitting of new knowledge in with the old.
It is the second type of suffering that we find surprising and disconcerting:
The suffering that seeks us
In its milder forms, this pain is just the unfortunate and bad stuff that happens in a normal day. But in its most virulent form, this is the stuff of tragedy. This is losing your brother, your wife, your husband, your child. This is the pain that comes from fire, flood, famine. This is the pain the follows when the doctor calls you and asks you to come in, sits down next to you, and says there’s bad news – and you know then what is going to kill you. This is a different kind of pain, and philosophers and theologians and counselors and pastors and priests and poets have all tried to explain where it comes from and what it means (emphasis mine).”2
This type of suffering inevitably involves loss in its many forms: the loss of love or a loved one, the loss of safety, the loss of home and shelter, the loss of health, the loss of control over one’s life.
Many of us struggle in such loss, dazed and disoriented by its suddenness and ferocity.
To get our bearings, the natural thing to do is to search for the reasons behind it and for the meaning that will come from it.
“Who is responsible for this?” we ask.
“When and how did it begin? Could we have seen it coming?”
“Why did it happen?”
“How will it change things?”
“What will it mean?”
I think the mental rehearsal of the “who-what-when-and-why” of loss is the mind’s way of trying to make this second type of suffering like the first.
The mind can understand and accept the first type because there were obvious and incontrovertible reasons for it. There was a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the meaning and the subsequent suffering.
In the first type, we masterminded both the meaning and suffering ourselves. Suffering was the journey we willingly undertook to get from point A to point B.
What we find so disorienting about the second type is the absence of any of these familiar landmarks. We find ourselves in strange territory with little or no idea what it all should mean.
So we start searching for landmarks to navigate by: meanings behind the suffering that will help us accept and integrate it into our lives.
Finding meaning is an important part of a psychological construct called Post-traumatic Growth (PTG). This refers to the mental and emotional growth that can result from a survivor’s struggle to cope with trauma.3
PTG and resilience are similar in many ways – both involve positive perception of self, better social connections, greater appreciation and enjoyment of life, faith, and a sense of meaning and purpose.
But PTG is distinct from resilience because it is specifically born out of suffering. Some people are born resilient, but with the proper guidance we can all achieve post-traumatic growth.
Those who experience PTG do not just return to their pre-trauma baseline, but in fact reach higher levels of life appreciation, meaning, and purpose.
PTG does not eliminate suffering, but creates meaning from it.
How to Find Meaning in Suffering
Scientific American recently published an article on five pathways to post-traumatic growth – in other words, five ways to find meaning in suffering.
I will cover the first two in the rest of this post; the next three will be the subject for next week.
1. Become Stronger in the Broken Places
Survivors of suffering are both weaker and stronger afterwards.
Even several decades after childhood abuse, a raised voice can still trigger one’s PTSD symptoms, throwing the abused back into the war zone of his or her childhood home. He or she will still feel the urge to either fight back or immediately run for cover.
But early trauma can create stronger points as well: a stronger, deeper sense of compassion for others and a steely determination to break the pattern of abuse in one’s own marriage and family.
Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”4
Eric Greitens notes that the ability to become stronger at the broken places is a characteristic of resilience.
Have you ever broken a bone? Or cut yourself deeply?
When the body is wounded, it naturally binds the wound with a thick, fibrous protein called collagen. Collagen is a normal part of the body’s connective tissue, but not nearly as concentrated as it becomes in wound healing. Its tough properties make it ideal for binding back together what has been torn apart.
In other words, the body’s natural reaction to wounds is to build a stronger structure than was there originally.
Collagen is what makes scar tissue look the way it does – sometimes bumpy and rough, but also far stronger than before.
Post-traumatic growth is like building scar tissue in the mind.
I realize this sounds like a bad thing.
It’s true that scar tissue changes the way we look to the world; it’s also true that scar tissue in the mind changes the way we look at the world.
While this can – if we let it – create an emotional callousness, it does not have to.
“Grit” is not a pretty word, and it is not meant to be. Like scar tissue it serves a utilitarian purpose, not an aesthetic one. But also like scar tissue, it can protect the tender beauty underneath: love, joy, compassion, and a sense of peace with the world.
To become stronger at the broken places:
The Resilience Workbook suggests the following activity: identify a current problem, conflict, crisis, or loss that you are experiencing. Take time to think and write out answers to the following questions:
- Which of my inner strengths (e.g. patience, optimism, grit) does this situation require?
- Have these inner strengths prevented me from suffering more than I might have?
- How will this situation prepare me for adversity in the future?
2. Cultivate Compassion
My husband Oleg and I lived with our small daughter in New York City during the 9/11 terror attacks. Shortly after the attacks, I interviewed for and took a job at a university in southern California.
It was a strange time to move to another part of the country. In NYC, the tragedy had been a tangible part of our reality. Every day we had seen the mutilated skyline, smelled the lingering smoke and ash, witnessed the funeral processions, and wept at the memorials set up along subway corridors.
But when we moved, the tangible reminders stayed behind. And while Californians no doubt had grieved the attacks in their own way, we found that their grief was not the same as ours. This created a kind of invisible barrier between us and them that lasted for quite a while.
My new job involved extensive travel, including attending the annual neuroscience conference. Neuroscientists from all over the world attend this research conference, usually held somewhere in the United States. The first year of my new job, it was in Orlando, Florida. I was looking forward to seeing my friends from the grad school I had attended in New York.
One night after the meetings, I met up with two of them for a late dinner. We made light chitchat at first, about grad school, about our research projects, and the jobs we had moved on to.
Then, without really planning or meaning to, we started talking about 9/11.
“What were you doing that day?” we asked each other.
“Did you know anyone in the towers?”
“How were your family members or friends affected?”
“How did you handle it?”
I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I had needed to talk about it, and not just to anyone, but to others who had been there. Sitting at that dinner table on a humid Florida night, we were each re-living that September morning when American life was irreversibly changed.
As we locked eyes around the table, we knew we were re-living it together.
It was one of the most healing experiences of my life.
I don’t recall that any of us had any special insights to share; no one said anything particularly profound. The healing was not even the words we spoke – it was in the shared experience. It vibrated in the air around us, lighting up each face with the same thought:
I understand what you’re going through because I was there, too.
Compassion is the gift of suffering. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness…Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.”5
The rudiments of compassion, the desire for justice and fair treatment, are planted in every soul. But when suffering comes, it waters the ground so profusely that these small seeds have no choice but to split through their husks and stretch eagerly for the outside world.
In the presence of suffering, compassion grows to maturity. It can then stand solidly in the soul and support those faltering around it.
This is perhaps suffering’s best gift: the ability to come along someone else and help them through the same thing.
Being able to share and discuss hardship helps us heal. Clinical research has shown that this is key to the post-traumatic growth experienced by those dealing with the aftermath of terrorism,6 intimate partner violence,7 and chronic illnesses like AIDS and cancer.8
To create compassion out of suffering:
The Resilience Workbook suggests writing out answers to the following questions:
- How might others benefit from this situation?
- What advice can I offer others because of the things I have suffered?
- What comfort can I give because of the things I have suffered?
I have mentioned Corrie Ten Boom in another post. She and her family were part of the Dutch resistance during World War II, hiding Jews in their small home in Haarlem. When they were betrayed, Corrie and her sister Betsie were first imprisoned, then sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck.
In their last winter at the camp, Betsie started making plans for after the war. She told Corrie that out of the former death camps they would build rehabilitation centers, tearing down the barbed wire and installing flowerboxes at the barracks windows.
At first Corrie assumed the centers were going to be for former prisoners, but Betsie corrected her: they would also help rehabilitate the former prison guards. The centers would be for all “people who had been warped by this philosophy of hate and force…to learn another way.”9
After the war, Corrie did indeed carry out this work. Betsie did not – she died in Ravensbruck.
But before her death, Betsie assured Corrie that opening these centers would give meaning of their suffering:
[We] must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them there is no pit so deep that [God] is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here (italics mine).”10
Anyone interested in learning more about resilience will benefit from reading The Resilience Workbook by Dr. Glenn Schiraldi.
And if you found this post helpful, please share it. Thank you!
1 Greitens, E. (2016). Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life. New York: Mariner Books. p.x.
2 Greitens, E. (2016). Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life. New York: Mariner Books. p.158.
3 Tedeschi, R. G., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., & Calhoun, L. G. (2018). Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications. Routledge.
4 Hemingway, E. (1957). Farewell to Arms. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p.249.
5 Rilke, R. (1934). Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Norton. p.27
6 Cárdenas-Castro, M., Faúndez-Abarca, X., Arancibia-Martini, H., & Ceruti-Mahn, C. (2017). The relationship between posttraumatic growth and psychosocial variables in survivors of state terrorism and their relatives. Journal of interpersonal violence, 0886260517727494.
7 Flasch, P., Murray, C. E., & Crowe, A. (2017). Overcoming abuse: A phenomenological investigation of the journey to recovery from past intimate partner violence. Journal of interpersonal violence, 32(22), 3373-3401.
8 Zeligman, M., Varney, M., Grad, R. I., & Huffstead, M. (2018). Posttraumatic Growth in Individuals With Chronic Illness: The Role of Social Support and Meaning Making. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(1), 53-63.
9 Ten Boom, C., Sherrill, J. & Sherrill, E. (1971). The Hiding Place. Bantam Books. p.215.
10 Ten Boom, C., Sherrill, J. & Sherrill, E. (1971). The Hiding Place. Bantam Books. p.227.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.