Eric Greitens has made it his mission to take on challenges, and his life’s work is amazing and impressive—an action-adventurer/philanthropist/scholar’s dream.
He taught English in China while still in college, learned to box in a nails-tough African-American gym in St. Louis, and worked as a volunteer with orphans in Bosnia and survivors of genocide in Rwanda. If all that isn’t enough, Greitens immersed himself in a Rhodes Scholarship before nearly drowning during a Navy SEAL training course.
Greitens’ latest challenge was to adapt his bestselling memoir, The Heart and the Fist, for a teen audience in Warrior’s Heart. In our review, we noted that his “writing throughout is straightforward and effectively personalized, detailed yet unadorned; one would have to be mighty cynical to resist the power of Greitens’ experiences, and young Americans would benefit from contemplating his message.” They have an even greater chance of tuning in with this powerful excursion through a life that has been boldly lived, with purpose, decency and a great breath of compassion.
In Warrior’s Heart, you speak about managing your fear when you find yourself in difficult situations. Can you give an example of the strategy a SEAL might use to overcome the fear of patrolling the streets of Fallujah, Iraq?
It’s easy to think about this question the wrong way. When the average person thinks about “patrolling the streets of Fallujah,” it fills them with fear, possibly even terror. Most of that fear is brought about by the fact that the experience is new for them, unknown and dangerous.
SEALs train. And then they train more. And then they train more. Then, after that, they train again and then again. The process of building courage is not so much about “psyching oneself up” as some think of it, but about building true, deep confidence based on having overcome difficulties in the past.
In the middle of a patrol, one’s adrenaline might spike, the heart rate might rush in a moment of danger, but even this has been trained for, and SEALs know—and to “know” is as much a physical and spiritual knowing, as a mental knowing—how to handle themselves in a situation like this.
You present a number of parable-like scenarios that put the reader in just such trying situations. You ask them to decide what they would do. How do you imagine they will triangulate a way to an honest, honorable response?
Tom McCollough was one of my favorite teachers of ethics at Duke University, and he wrote a book on the moral imagination and public life. [He said,] “Moral imagination is energized and expanded as we remember and reflect on…those experiences in which we empathize with others and find ways to meet their needs and take action on their behalf.”
There are no perfect answers to the scenarios in the book. What I hope is that when teachers use this book in their classrooms, the scenarios will help kids to imagine, to trade ideas and to explore possible answers. As students exercise their moral imagination through these scenarios and put themselves in the shoes of another, they will expand their sense of the world and see their own place in it.
You write that for your boxing mentor, Earl, “any location where people gathered to make themselves better,” including a ratty gym or a parking lot, “was a place or worship,” and that ordinary tasks could have the power of ritual. How do you see a sense of spirituality lending a hand in life’s progress?
For me, spirituality speaks to a sense of using one’s talents and gifts to serve something beyond the self. It means having a purpose rooted outside the self. Spirituality also includes the simple act of giving thanks, which helps us to ground ourselves and focus on all that we are fortunate to have.
Finally, a sense of spirituality can help us to see that there are things beyond our understanding. This encourages a sense of humility, a recognition that, as human beings, no matter how hard we’ve studied or how much we think we know, we never have all the answers.
You mentioned earlier, and you also write that some of your Hell Week SEAL experiences were “spiritual training by physical means.” How does the physical engender the spiritual?
My coach Earl used to tell stories about the young men who came to the gym to box. They came off the streets of inner-city Durham, and they weren’t interested in being taught “life lessons.” So, Earl just worked them—hard. He’d have them jump ropes for hours, do push-ups and sit-ups and run in place until they were so tired that every muscle ached. It was at that moment, when they could hardly pick themselves up from the floor, that the young men would listen to what Earl had to say.
Pain, whether it’s physical or emotional, has a way of focusing the mind. When the pain is particularly acute, it forces you to think hard about what matters most. How much am I willing to suffer to achieve this goal? If we are willing to endure the right kinds of pains, if we are willing to endure the right kind of suffering, we can become wiser and stronger.
Earl also said, “Baby, all we can do is do right.” Isn’t it true that some of the most crucial guideposts are monosyllabic in their simplicity?
Yes. In order for good advice to work, it has to be remembered. And in order for us to remember good advice, it has to be simple.
You write of a turning point in your life when “I became an advocate for using power, when necessary, to protect the weak, to halt ethnic cleansing, to end genocide.” What sparked and sustained this sense of direct action as an effective antidote?
The idea of direct action as an effective means came to me gradually. When I volunteered in the Bosnian refugee camps, I met a man who had survived the ethnic cleansing. I remember him telling me, as he gestured at his hut, that he appreciated the shelter. He appreciated the bread. He pointed to where his children could play, and, he said, he appreciated the volunteers and the crayons and the schoolwork. But, he said, “We need the Serbs to stop burning villages and raping women and killing brothers.”
I saw this again in Rwanda, where it was ultimately the Rwandan Patriotic Front—a Tutsi military force that swept down from Uganda—that brought an end to the genocide there. Sometimes, the strong must do more than comfort the weak—we must also offer protection.