By early morning, Nick the waiter was still sloshed.
He staggered into the upscale restaurant where we both worked as 22-year-olds. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot, and all the rest of that shift he worked with a gruff and annoyed attitude.
During break time, the other waiters and I ate our meal in silence. Everybody gave Nick space. Then the head waitress said, “So, Nick, what were you drinking last night?” And the story came out.
Nick had caught his longtime girlfriend cheating on him. He chose to be true to his feelings of anger, sorrow, and betrayal by emptying a fifth of vodka. But he still felt miserable. The problem was not resolved, and whatever angst he felt the night before was still with him the day after.
Can you relate? I know I can. Maybe not to all of the specifics of the story, but every man encounters adversity in his life and responds. I’m not talking about a barista at Starbucks getting your order wrong. I’m talking about genuine trouble—life-changing, throat-crushing, spirit-sucking hardship.
Here’s what I know now as a 44-year-old man. A quick and harmful response to adversity is what Nick did that day years ago. It’s easy to do as a man, and I’ve made the same mistake. But more important than the quick response is how a man sorts through adversity and handles it over the long haul.
Some men are defeated by adversity.
Some men are made stronger.
Consider the epitome of trouble: a life or death experience.
In a recent interview with me, 88-year-old WWII veteran R.V. Burgin described the first wave of Banzai charges he encountered during the battle of Cape Gloucester. Warning: he describes one night of pure hell. But listen to the stoicism and resolve in his voice 67 years later.
It was a sleepless night—I’ll put it that way. We could hear the Japanese in front of us as we were digging in. They were only about a dozen yards away. After dark they started yelling. You could just see their silhouettes.
What was making them come forward? I don’t exactly know. That was the Japanese attitude. You can picture it: an enemy soldier standing straight up with his rifle in his hands running straight at you.
One Jap charged right into my foxhole. I stuck my bayonet into his chest just as he was leaving his feet, heaved him right over my shoulder, and pulled the trigger, emptying my M1 into him. He was very dead when he hit the ground—I’ll tell you that. It all didn’t take but just a few seconds. I kicked him out of the way and didn’t give him another thought. I just paid attention to what was happening in front of me and got ready for the next charge.
They kept charging and charging. That was all that was going through my mind—“kill that bastard. Don’t miss. Make sure you get him.” You’re not thinking. You just try to get your sights on a man and get him down. I think most of us were wondering, “My God, how many times are we going to need to do this?! For crying out loud, how many of them are out there?” We fought off five charges that night. There wasn’t anybody who had much ammo left by daylight.
Do I remember what any one specific Japanese soldier looked like? Hell yeah. I can close my eyes today and tell you exactly what he looked like. Instead of running like we run, he had a funny fast-paced trot. Leggings. These tennis-shoe looking shoes. That brownish uniform. That silly looking helmet. Weapons—yeah, it’s that long rifle with mechanical sights—I’ve got one in my closet today. Unbelievable determination in his face—like nothing was going to stop him. Squint-eyed. Yelling. Hollering. “Marine you die! Marine you die!”
Oh yeah, I can see him. I can see lots of them. In the morning there were more than 200 dead Japs in front of us. You could literally walk on them without stepping on the ground.
I asked Burgin to reflect on that experience of horror in his past and how it affected him as a man today. Without missing a beat he said,
Quite frankly, I’m glad I got to fight in the Pacific.
Sure, the horrors never leave you. But I can say until my dying day that I fought with the United States Marine Corps. I fought the Japanese on the islands.
The men I served with were outstanding Marines. They were great men. Maybe the best warriors the world has ever seen.
That first line of his stops me cold. Read it again if you need to—Quite frankly, I’m glad I got to fight in the Pacific.
Do you see how staggeringly uncommon that is?
Burgin is actually grateful for the adversity. Not for the horror, no, but because of the benefit it produced in his life.
Because of that adversity, Burgin experienced unparalleled camaraderie with his fellow Marines. In that same narrative, he shows a huge level of pride in being part of an elite group of rough and ready men. During another part of the interview, he described how his training in the Marines provided a necessary skill set—how to be calm under pressure. This skill set helped him immensely with his career as a postal supervisor after the war, as well as in everyday dealings as a husband, father, and community member. Certainly not the same level of drama, but still settings where a man needs to be calm under pressure.
That’s the challenge for all men. Most of us will not encounter life and death situations, but we will all encounter serious adversity. The interplay with adversity is human and universal.
How will adversity sit with us? Will we work through it, acknowledging that the trouble was genuine trouble and yet knowing that it strangely helped form us into who we are today? Or will we become victims of adversity, forever dismayed by it, perpetually sorrowing at our losses, continually hurt by our disappointments?
In simplest terms: Will that hardship make or break us?
My term for Burgin’s attitude today is “defiant gratefulness.” It’s what I have a bit of already in my own life, and what I want far more of.
The “defiance” doesn’t mean rebellion. Rather, it’s a determined sort of gratitude. It’s an attitude of resolve. Defiant gratefulness is when a man says, Screw it, I won’t be destroyed by hardship. In fact, I choose to see adversity as something that makes me stronger.
Imagine the opposite: what would your life be like if you never encountered any sort of a challenge?
A man who lives in a completely problem-free world—where he never needs to summon courage, or show backbone, or get along with someone who doesn’t agree with him, or have the fortitude to work out a problem without taking a hike—is a man untested. He’s a child.
Because of hardship, we see that we can be brave.
Because of hardship, we learn to have backbones.
Because of hardship, we are able to work amicably with people we don’t agree with, or we can shake hands in disagreement and walk away.
Because of hardship—and our ability to navigate through it—we become men.
Pulitzer-prize winning novelist William Faulkner (1897-1962) likened gratitude to electricity. “It must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all,” he wrote.
In ancient history, St. Paul of Tarsus issued an extreme call. He was an older man by the time he wrote about the problems he had endured. Five times he was publicly whipped. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once an angry mob pelted him with stones. Three times he was shipwrecked and once spent a day and night alone on the open sea. Yet he extended this blanket call to defiant gratefulness: “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
The “all” is a tricky word to navigate. No, we are not called to be thankful for the hardship itself. Nick the waiter isn’t asked to be thankful that his girlfriend cheated on him, much the same way R.V. Burgin isn’t grateful for an enemy soldier trying to stick him with a bayonet.
Rather, we are called to be thankful through hardship. Or in spite of hardship. Or, thankful for what the hardship produces when we see beneficial change in our character.
Can you echo the words of R.V. Burgin—Quite frankly, I’m glad I got to fight in the Pacific—whatever the specific adversity was that you went through?
Are you defiantly thankful?
That’s the invitation offered to every man today.
Voices of the Pacific Giveaway
Voices of the Pacific, Marcus Brotherton’s latest book, (written with coauthor Adam Makos), released April 2.
Dale Dye, military advisor for the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, said about the book: “These are the true—and terrifying—stories of combat Marines struggling against a fanatical enemy on the far-flung islands of the Pacific. A powerful new book.”
We’ve got a copy of the book signed by Makos, Brotherton, and 3 WWII veterans, and we’re giving the book away to a lucky Art of Manliness reader. To win a copy of Voices of the Pacific, just leave a comment related to your thoughts on the article.
Remember, comments are moderated, so it won’t show up right away; don’t comment twice.
One comment will be randomly drawn as the winner. Giveaway ends Monday, April 15th, at 5pm CT. Post will be updated with the winner within 72 hours after the giveaway ends.
Look for another chance to win a copy of Voices of the Pacific later this month when we interview Marcus for the AoM podcast.
The giveaway is now closed. Thanks to all who entered — your comments were truly thoughtful and interesting. One winner was randomly drawn and he is:
Eric from Farnhamville, IA
Look for the podcast this week for another chance to win a signed copy of Voices of the Pacific.