Growth through struggle

  • Published
  • By Col. Norman Shaw
  • 512th Airlift Wing vice commander

Perhaps one of the most profound and common life experiences we’ll all share throughout our lives is that of struggle. Hardships often kick down the door of our lives quite unexpectedly and enter in the form of a sudden loss of a family member, diagnosis of a debilitating or life-threatening disease, divorce, job loss, financial devastation or a wide array of other life derailments. Many times, it’s simply the small strains that pile up to become the chains that bind us. Such difficulties happen regardless of the position one may hold, the rank a person has achieved, the money in our bank account, or the material objects we may have long believed define a meaningful life. Billionaires are not immune to daily relationship struggles with family members, nor are the most accomplished members of society free from the greatest of life’s disappointments. The paradox however, is that a life without struggle is much like a gym without weights. Throughout history people have emerged from horrific experiences to ultimately learn that meaning can in fact be derived from incredible difficulty, and ignite growth that transforms us into the beacons of light for others to follow.

Arrested and imprisoned in a series of concentration camps during World War II, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl confronted an abject and unthinkable existence that formed one of the most widely-known and egregious examples of suffering in the 20th century. Separated from his wife and tortured in unimaginable ways during the Holocaust, Frankl was for years carried through that unconscionable experience by the hope of reunification with his wife. Finally set free by Allied Forces in 1945, he soon learned the devastating news that she, along with his parents and brother, didn’t survive. 

What ultimately came in the aftermath of his tragedy was the amazing and courageous conviction to derive meaning and strength from his experience, and use it to help his patients and countless others navigate their own rough waters. In providing such perspective, Frankl asserted that everything can be taken from us “…but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And, just as poignantly he illustrated that, “When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Some of our nation’s most shining illustrations of the wingman concept were painted by countless prisoners of war from the Vietnam War, to include Lee Ellis. Having spent over five years enduring unfathomable physical and psychological torture in Hanoi, Vietnam, Ellis emerged with the presence of mind to see all his years of struggle, uncertainty and separation from his family as a springboard to unbreakable personal growth. He said, “Like it or not, we tend to learn the most about ourselves in our struggles. Such self-awareness is the prerequisite for all personal development. I’m not suggesting that we need to enjoy trials, but as individuals and leaders we do need to value them.” 

He’s right. If we look back on our lives we’ll remember those hard turning points that built the more resilient people we’ve progressively become. Our difficulties may be especially hard, but they will pass. And then, growth and perspective materializes that turns us into concrete pillars of support for others. There are countless people who have demonstrated ironclad resolve and resiliency through unimaginable circumstances, though experiences as severe as those encountered by Frankl and Ellis are rare. But, they serve as incredible guideposts for us to find strength we may not realize we have. When the fog of life rolls in on us, looking at such extreme examples provides focus for us to forge a bit of perspective around our own life challenges. 

Nobody gets through life without help - not one. As military members we all have very unique access to our chaplains for counseling under absolute and strict confidentiality. They don’t share their conversations with anyone, and it’s just between the chaplain and you. In fact, you could say they’re ultimate wingmen. There are also incredible resources available at to help guide us through a wide-range of serious issues for ourselves and others, which helps provide a solid framework for dealing with the trials that come to us all.

Sometimes it takes others to help us cultivate and see the strength we’re all capable of, and harness the power resident in all of us. And, it’s in such times that we develop a steely resilience from our own difficulties, and turn that into power for others. We’ll occasionally need a solid wingman to lean on, and in emerging from some of life’s valleys, we find we’ve grown stronger, and in turn become the wingman others look to long after our time in uniform ends.