In trying to find a way to encourage my wife through bizarre multiple cancers, I realized fairly early that there was no book on how to do it. So I began to look to other people facing extreme situations to find out what worked for them. I found some very tough people going through very tough circumstances and I was surprised by some of the things they said. Often they went counter to my expectations. Here’s one of the lessons I learned.

You cannot depend on mega-conferences, giant pep rallies, expensive motivational speakers, nationally celebrated doctors or expert encouragers to show up when you need them. In fact, big encouragement often leads to a big let down. After the music and hoopla die down you are left facing the same problems all alone. The silence can be deafening. The lack of noise echoes with loneliness. But don’t be dismayed. One of the best kept secrets of encouragement is this:

Little things are huge!

Marcus Luttrell knows. He’s a Navy SEAL. You might remember him as the author of Lone Survivor – the eyewitness account of operation Redwing and the lost heroes of SEAL Team 10. For those who don’t recall, Marcus’ four man team was dropped into the Afghan mountains and ran smack into 140 battle hardened Taliban soldiers intent on finding and destroying them.

Facing 35 to 1 odds was overwhelming, even for a SEAL. To keep from being surrounded they first had to retreat by jumping off a 600 foot cliff, having no idea the gradient slope below would break their fall. As they were surrounded again they were forced off a second cliff 40 feet tall. Still clinging to the mountain and fighting, Marcus was blown off a third cliff by a rocket propelled grenade. One by one his teammates and best friend were picked off. Marcus, the medic of the team, was separated from his medical supplies and powerless to help.

In the end, he regained consciousness upside down in the hole where the RPG had blasted him. His team were all dead. He had a broken back, broken nose, torn rotator cuff and metal shrapnel sticking out of his paralyzed legs. He fought on until darkness when he was able to crawl away to a stream and hide under some logs. With no radio contact, he spent the night alone drifting in and out of hallucinations. How did he make it?

Here are his words:

“In my head I played over and over again one of the verses of Toby Keith’s country and western classic “American Soldier.” I remember lying there quietly singing the words to myself, the part that said I might have to die . . . “I’ll bear that cross with honor.”

“I sang those words all night. I can’t tell you how much they meant to me. I can tell you, it’s little things like that, the words of a song, which can give you the strength to go on.”

Now, the idea that a Toby Keith song can turn you into a Navy SEAL is ridiculous. A lifetime of experience, unparalleled personal courage, the best military training on the planet and a team of fighting brothers like no other should be properly credited for Marcus’ survival. But that night, surrounded, hiding beneath logs, alone and wounded in the hostile mountains, the small thing that kept him going was a song.


Navy file photo of Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From left to right, Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, of Cupertino, Calif; Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Daniel R. Healy, of Exeter, N.H.; Quartermaster 2nd Class James Suh, of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell; MachinistÕs Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, of Boulder City, Nev.; and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, of Patchogue, N.Y. With the exception of Luttrell, all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wing. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)