Listen to this story
The sign read “Welcome to Camp Harriman.” Only someone had taken a red Sharpie and crossed out “Camp Harriman” and replaced it with the words “Rocket City.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I grabbed my backpack and made my way off the helicopter pad, following my friend Paul. Once the helicopter lifted off, I caught a whiff of a distinct smell I would awake to each morning for the next nine months.
“Where’s the smoke coming from? And what the hell is that smell!?” I yelled over the sound of a large generator. Paul rounded the corner and quickly pointed to two young men with sticks. One was pouring JP-8 jet fuel into an already burning barrel, while the other stirred. After a few minutes, one of them turned his head, vomited, and continued stirring while the other laughed at him. The realization that they were burning the feces from the camp’s makeshift toilets suddenly clicked.
“Am I going to have to do that?” I asked Paul.
Paul just raised his eyebrows and mumbled, “Maybe…”
This memory will forever be the first I have of arriving in Afghanistan in 2003.
In the first few weeks, I discovered why they called it “Rocket City.” Around dusk, Taliban fighters would launch 107-millimeter rockets at the small camp. Sometimes they missed. Sometimes they were dead-on. (I was unlucky enough to catch some shrapnel that shattered my wrist one particular day.) Most of the men in the camp ended up with dysentery at some point because of the unsanitary cooking conditions. Showers were few and far between because the well water was too cold in winter. (At one point, I went 21 days without a shower.) I lived in a tent that was blazing hot in summer and freezing in winter. No internet. No phones. And I slept on a cot for nine months.
Here’s what’s strange: Some of my favorite memories are from that time of adversity. Some of the richest moments of laughter and friendship emerged during this time in my life. The simple pleasure of getting to watch a bootleg copy of Friends for the 30th time brought me immense joy. Despite the hardship all around me, I never found myself depressed or isolated.
That wouldn’t happen until I came home.
The Anesthetizing Effect of Comfort
When the flight carrying me home from Afghanistan landed, I couldn’t wait to eat regular food, take a hot shower, drink water from a tap, and sleep in a bed. But oddly enough, as I transitioned back into regular life, I found myself depressed — even as my standard comfort levels returned. I enrolled in college and experienced more stress and anxiety than I felt when I was getting mortared almost daily. What the hell was going on?
A year ago, I sat with my wife’s 92-year-old grandmother, Pinky, who asked me a simple yet profound question:
“All I hear these days is how everyone is stressed out. How life is eating their lunch. We didn’t have this level of anxiety back in my day. Why is that?”
Before you write Pinky off as a senile old woman who’s out of touch with reality, it should be noted that she’s actually correct. According to Psychology Today, “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.” Sixty-one percent of college students surveyed in 2014 reported overwhelming anxiety within the last year, and 35.5 percent said they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
We live in a society that empowers us to be more comfortable and independent than ever. I can order food from my phone and have it delivered to my house. Unlike the citizens in many Third World countries, I don’t have to go to a well to drink water. I turn on a faucet (but let’s be honest, I drink the filtered stuff and not the tap, just like you). I can sit on my couch all day and remain entertained by video games and Netflix. Hell, when I run out of toilet paper, I can have it delivered in an hour using Amazon Now. If I don’t feel like talking to my neighbors, I can use my garage door opener and park my car without ever saying a word to them.
While technological advancements have made life easier, we continue to see rising cases of anxiety, suicide, and depression. We’re connected to a global village via social media, yet reports continue to point out our overwhelming feelings of isolation and loneliness as we compare our online lives to one another.
It’s an interesting paradox isn’t it? That as our wealth and comfort increase, we feel more anxious and isolated. In fact, this phenomenon is known as the Easterlin paradox. In the 1970s, Richard Easterlin provided research showing that although successive generations are usually more affluent and wealthy than that of their parents or grandparents, people seemed to be no happier with their lives. As countries got richer, they didn’t get happier.
In a twist of irony, it turns out that tragedies (which disrupt our comfort) seem to play a role in both making us feel better and helping us combat isolation and anxiety.
The More Abundant the Blessings, the Less Our Connectedness
If I were to tell you that after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the suicide rate, violent crime rate, and murder rate in New York City went down, would you believe me? Because that’s exactly what happened. More often than not, when people experience events that disrupt their comfort and isolation in a shared communal experience, they end up thriving.
During World War II, British psychologists and planners worried that mass air-raid bombings would produce shell-shocked civilians, leading to an increase in mental illness among the populace. Instead, civilians proved more resilient than expected because planners underestimated their adaptability and resourcefulness. In fact, during the Blitz on London, admissions to psychiatric wards went down. People were less crazy in the face of adversity and hardship. As comfort decreased, resiliency increased.
Though we live in tumultuous times, our daily lives are mostly consistent and mostly comfortable — at least, compared to the alternatives. We all have our struggles — illness, financial strife, chronic dissatisfaction — but as a collective, most of our daily discomfort is delivered by the news or social media (which we can always opt out of by turning off the TV or closing the browser). And when our comfort levels can be controlled simply by disengaging, there is little need to fret, let alone pray, or worry about finances or a terrorist attack, or even care about our neighbors and the injustices happening around us. It is only when our personal comfort crumbles that the soul awakens.
This reality was eloquently critiqued in the recent Starz breakout show American Gods. While relaying the story of a young Irishwoman who brought her gods to America through the telling of folklore, the narrator remarks:
“Unfortunately, the more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray.”
A short time after receiving her blessings, the young Irishwoman’s cozy life gets interrupted, and adversity, trial, and prayer once more shape her.
Facing adversity sounds good in theory. Head toward the fire and thrive? Smack the hornet’s nest and bounce back? If this were the case, some of us would run through fields of hypodermic needles in hopes that we might get a million-dollar book deal after writing about what we learned (and there are plenty of hope-huckstering articles like that anyway). But how each of us handles suffering and hardship varies.
My wife once shared some personal research about suffering that depicts why we don’t all bounce back. She dubbed her findings the “bell curve of adversity.” After returning home from Afghanistan, I would once more deploy overseas, only this time to Iraq. I was married to another woman during my second deployment who ended up filing for divorce in the middle of my tour. I came home from war only to live on a friend’s couch while battling mental illness, a fresh divorce, joblessness, and borderline alcoholism. I had fallen to pieces.
My wife pointed out that each tragedy was followed by progress: I found work, made new friends, and drank less. Life didn’t just return to normal—it catapulted to new heights. I began helping other veterans, picked up new skills like writing and motivational speaking, and viewed my past as a learning experience that could encourage others. However, my experience wasn’t the norm. My wife explained that when adversity strikes, it typically affects people in one of three ways:
- They fall apart and never recover.
- They recover, and life returns to normal.
- A few catapult to new heights.
This information would later be confirmed by research in Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s 2017 book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. But what my wife and Option B failed to point out was that suffering, adversity, and hardship have a different result when experienced collectively, rather than in our personal lives.
The Seeds of Resilience Are Not Planted by One Farmer
In 2007, shortly after returning home from Iraq, I met a talented author and communicator named Josh Riebock. Reeling from my fresh divorce, I spent most of my time at the gym, believing that if I looked good, I would have enough worth to meet another woman who could love me. This led to all types of body-image issues and false narratives about self-worth that helped compound everything else I was facing. I looked more like a meathead who ate gyms for breakfast than a guy who wanted to stay healthy.
My first encounter with Josh happened after one of his speaking engagements. He introduced himself and asked my name, to which I responded, “My name’s Ben, but my friends call me Sledge.” Josh took one look at me and remarked, “Of course they do.” I would then go on to accidentally hit on his wife (I didn’t know they were married) and act like a jackass in his periphery on several occasions.
At the time, Josh was battling his own demons due to his parents dying tragically and within months of each other. In addition to the loss of his parents, he was battling chronic depression. These events caused his marriage to suffer and eventually landed him in counseling. Finances were also tight, because Josh had quit his job as a youth mentor to become a writer and speaker a few months before the loss of his parents.
Despite a rocky start, our friendship bloomed, and we began adding other men who were facing down hardship to our island of misfit toys. And a funny thing happened. We recovered collectively and catapulted to new heights. Josh became a Wall Street Journal bestselling author after publishing a semiautobiographical account of the hardships he faced. Another friend of ours became a popular indie-folk singer. Another taught inner-city children after turning down a lucrative sales career. Collectively, we could encourage and plant the seeds of resilience within each other when adversity struck. Individually, I think many of us would have given up.
Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to bounce back these days. We don’t live in community with our neighbors, let alone get to know them. The looming allure of comfort keeps many of us stuck in cycles of isolation and railing our fist at the sky asking “why?” rather than learning from it. Western society practically injects you with it at birth. In a 2013 New York Times article entitled “The Value of Suffering,” Pico Iyer points out that after a 2011 tsunami devastated Japan and killed thousands of people, he heard much more lamentation and panic in California than among the people he knew around Kyoto. Those closer to the tragedy had little choice but to unite, rebuild, and stick out the hardship.
The Perks of Adversity
From 9/11 to the Blitz in London to a tsunami in Japan, one can see how much more resilient we can become when we face hardship together and in community. As opposed to having a long-term traumatic effect, challenges experienced together produce post-traumatic growth — and help defeat isolation, depression, and anxiety.
This doesn’t mean we run toward gunfire in a dark alley to improve our mental health, but it does mean that proactive steps to engage with others during times of hardship are paramount to growth. Instead of succumbing to the anesthetizing effect of drinking on our couches alone while we binge-watch shows and rarely engage with others beyond tipping the delivery guy, it means we have to actually open our lives to a community of people who can encourage and support us when comfort and ease come calling like a siren to shipwreck.
For some of us, this may begin with a simple hello to our neighbor that works to build and create a community of homes that care and look out for one another. For others it may be reaching out to friends when we’re struggling. And some may need to actively dismantle their own comfort: Do away with social media for a time. Delete Netflix. And put ourselves in scenarios and among people where we know we can grow collectively.
In antiquity, King Solomon once remarked,
“A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.”
Find your community. Stand back-to-back when the storms come. And conquer.