Book Review: "Stillness is the Key"

Author: Ryan Holiday

Busy is a Choice.

Our family calendar looks more complicated than my old fight schedule. Matching aircraft, crews, and mission equipment to a week’s worth of flights has got NOTHING on running a household these days. Trying to get kids to all their activities, while making sure you volunteer “enough” at the school, attend PTO meetings, and maybe sneak in a workout is more complex than air assault planning!

As I looked at our upcoming week’s worth of activities, and struggled to figure out how I could be in two places, across town, at the same time on Friday night – I realized something very critical.

I chose all this.

Not a single event on this calendar was forced upon me or my family. We chose to do sports, or volunteer groups, or workout classes. I begrudgingly added my name to the now endless number of “to bring” lists in signup genius.

Why…?

Ryan Holiday’s book “Stillness is the Key” hit me right up front with an ugly truth. I am doing all this because I think I am supposed to do it. Other people need me right? This is the kind of person I am – or I want to be. Right?

“Stillness is the Key” helped me take the first step to answering that question in my overly busy life. It was remarkable simple, but shockingly difficult.

Stop.

Stop doing. Hold still. And listen. Ryan explores how life bombards us in three critical dimensions; mentally, spiritually, and physically. We experience demands imposed upon us by others and we struggle when we try align our three dimensions with someone else’s values.

“Stillness” provides a roadmap for the reader to get their mental, spiritual, and physical self off the express highway of external demands on back on the road of self. For me, as I read the book, I focused on my tendency to overcommit – both myself and my family – to things we did not need. I reflected on how these demands drew me away from our real goals and family values, despite maybe looking pretty good to everyone else.

Each night, as I worked my way through this short book, I started to slow down just a little bit more. I thought about ways to live deliberately. I started seeing where I was committing time and energy to things others valued but I did not.

Today, I strive to read more of everything, play epic legos wars with my kids, and enjoy the peace of a quiet walk with my dog. I try to listen to the chirp of birds on my walk rather than drown out the nature’s chorus with a podcast or audiobook.

It took slowing down to see just how much time I really had. And just like that, I wasn’t busy anymore.

The Strongest Generation: Weight of the Bag

This morning I went up in the attic, looking for Autumn decorations in storage bins that are poorly labeled (organization has never been my strong suit).  As I opened one of the bins, I noticed a plastic trash bag inside, also not labeled.  I soon saw the box next to it containing “memorabilia” from my husband’s jet crash that nearly took his life almost nine years ago, and immediately knew the contents of the plastic bag.  

This particular moment is etched into my memory with remarkable clarity, and I’ve never taken the time to write it down.  I want to share it in hopes that others who may be going through extremely tough times might find some encouragement that one day, by the grace of God, you will be able to breath again.



“Are you Mrs. Smith” a young sailor hesitantly asked.  “I’m Mrs. Smith,” I responded, with just enough breath to be audible.  “This is for you,” he responded, as he handed me a heavy trash bag.  “Ummm…” I said, but before I had the opportunity to inquire at to what it was, he had left the room.  

Nine months pregnant, I slowly ambled back to the hospital lobby chair, waiting to find out my husband’s prognosis – bag in hand.  I was curious as to what the guy had just handed me, a welcome diversion from the sense of shock that had robbed me of a full breath of air just twelve hours prior.  

“It was heavy…what was inside?”  

As I began to open the bag, still puzzled, I caught a glimpse of green fabric, the kind that carries with it a familiarity of both deep joy and heartache.  Though it was familiar, it was not as it should be–it took me a moment to realize what it was– his flight suit, ragged and torn, and then neatly cut in some places.  It was heavy, drenched in sea water, with one peculiarly unscathed detail…

His patch.  

The sight of his name stole the last little bit of breath from my lungs and I froze. A rush of emotion welled up inside with no way to escape.  I swallowed the tears that were too big to express… I was numb.  

In disbelief, I began pulling more items from the plastic bag.  His shirt and boxers, neatly cut from top to bottom. A torn sock. Finally a combat boot– only one– with the bottom partially ripped off.  It was heavy.

“He’s alive,” I kept thinking… “he’s alive”… and yet I still couldn’t seem to catch my breath.  

All of that water, some lost blood, and actualized fears were contained in that bag.  It was a bag I wasn’t supposed to have received, the contents of which were intended to be evidence for the investigation that was already underway.  I gave up on trying to take full breaths, it was a futile cause anyway.  

I closed the bag.  It was too heavy.  

Today, nearly nine years after this event, the contents of that bag still carry a weightiness, bringing back a flood of memories from that uncertain time.  The “what if?” still haunts me from time to time. The thought of why he survived when so many others in similar circumstances did not still makes my head spin. The fact that he fully recovered, fought to get back up in the jet, and has gone on to have a successful aviation career– while almost miraculous– means that the same danger is ever-present. It’s not entirely in the past.

Yet now, when I see those clothes, that patch, the titanium rod (which we keep as a memento of my husband’s transition to semi-bionic limbs!), that spent nearly a year in his leg before being replaced during yet another surgery, my fears give way to an underlying sense of hope.  

The sea water that once weighed the bag down has long since dried up, the wounds have healed, and new patches have replaced the old.  

My breath returned, although it took much longer than expected. Only scars remain, reminding me of a time when the load was too heavy, too big, too much to bear…a time when I was carried through by grace.


This post is part of a series called The Strongest Generation. These words offer insights into the souls of those touched by America’s longest war.

Veteran Voices: Finding Peace In Our Longest War

The first person I knew killed by the war was Smith. He was my table commandant at West Point when I was a Yuk (sophomore). As the ranking Firstie (senior), he set the rules for how the table operated. He decided when we ate, how the food got served, and how much work the plebes had to do before they could eat. Smith was a good guy – making sure the plebes did their duties, that the Yuks supervised the plebes, and that the Cows were not too jaded (or hungover). He was fair, pretty funny, and just making it through the Academy like the rest of us.

Smith graduated in 2002. I was sitting at pretty much the same table, with many of the same people, 18 months later when we learned Smith had been killed in Iraq. Smith made war real to me. I was 22 years old.

Our military has been at war for almost two decades. Iraq. Afghanistan. To me it was all the same war, just different terrain. Even after all the reporters went home, the photo journalists packed up their cameras, and social media moved on – we stayed. We rotated in and out of country. Used the same airfields. Ate at the same chow halls. Lifted in the same gyms.

America moved on from the war, but the military never left.

Today, there is a lot of anxiety about war. People are swiping their screens violently, looking at Instagram, doing whatever one does on Twitter – and worrying about how we got here and where we are going.

As a Veteran and military spouse – I see those posts too. I feel the tension. I ache with the dread of what could happen. Am I afraid – certainly.

But I don’t live afriad.

I wall that fear off. Some nights, that wall is a little shaky. An image, a flag, a post – can throw me over my wall of courage with a crushing thud. But then I walk it back; remembering I am at home with my amazing family. I live in an incredible country. I play a board game with the kids, or walk the dog, or simply enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the early hours of the morning.

Peace in small moments keeps my big fears away.

There are times I wish I could make America see my war. I wish I could connect you with the war I have lived with for so damn long. I get frustrated. I want you to feel the same tired weight that lives behind my eyes, my heavy legs of combat, and taste the eternal dust of the desert.

And then – I don’t.

This is why I served. This is why my family serves. America’s surprise is how it is supposed to work. We fight so you don’t have to. We go so others can stay. We carry the cost of war so Americans can live.

So live every day of your life like it is your last. Live for Smith – and so many others. Love life. In the places we fight, people do not love their lives. They struggle to live, and eat, and survive. They do not read for joy. They do not take walks in safety. They want your life.

As a citizen, being aware of what is happening is part of our civic duty. But we must not forget to look at the stars because we are looking at our phones. We still must walk in the park, enjoy our meals, and read great books – oh what joy it is to read!

And always hug the ones we love.

Military members – do not feel bitter. When you get frustrated, do not berate your fellow Americans for not understanding. Give them your love. Support them. Listen to their fears. Cry with them. Tell them about your own Smith.

To live in the stillness of peace; that is the dream of the Soldier. We never stop looking for peace. It is why we fight for you. It is our final gift. Find your small moments, find peace – and live.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class and their families.