Great Books: Zen Under Fire by Marianne Elliott

zen under fire cover

If I had to choose one word to describe Marianne Elliott’s "Zen Under Fire" it would be honest.

Reading her words, I am struck by the courage she displays in admitting her own emotional struggles in a field often characterized by “cowboy culture” -- a culture where drowning your sorrows in alcohol or excessive amounts of video games is often more socially acceptable than outwardly expressing the intense sadness that comes with witnessing extreme violence.

A native of New Zealand, Elliott served as a Human Rights Lawyer with the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. She not only brings a unique and balanced voice to the political climate but gives one of the most honest accounts I’ve heard of the emotional toll that working in a war zone can take.

She walks readers through the intricate details of political tension and the complicated moral dilemmas that come with advocating for the rights and security of women and girls. Over time, she develops depression and feels her emotions become increasingly erratic. She cries “at the drop of a hat”, becomes intensely upset at small things and starts to see her health and relationships suffer. She doesn’t sugar coat it and reflects on her past feelings and actions with wisdom and acceptance.

Elliott takes us on a journey ripe with yoga, meditation, the teachings of Pema Chodron, and deep friendships. As she begins to find more efficacy in her work, she learns to cope with the world around her. With mindfulness, Elliott regains control over her emotions and learns to juggle the complicated demands of life in Afghanistan. She has great respect for the people of Afghanistan, which shines through even during her darkest times.

From beginning to end Elliott’s voice is relatable. She describes the isolation of feeling like she’s going crazy while those around her are fine — a feeling that I know many humanitarian aid workers feel all the time. A feeling that I know many people everywhere feel all the time. I would recommend this book to anyone in the aid sector who is struggling to thrive or planning to take on a high-stress post like Afghanistan.

But, even if you don’t work in aid, read this book. If you are working in high pressure helping professions you will relate to the journey that Elliott takes. If she can find zen in a war zone, we can find it at home.

Zen Under Fire is available in major bookstores and here on Amazon.

Preparing to go into the field as an aid worker? Read our tips on how to maximize your self-care here.

Have you read Zen Under Fire? What did you think? What other books would you recommend to those in the helping professions? Let us know in the comments.

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About Jessica

Jessica Jacobs is a Licensed Social Worker based in Indianapolis, IN. She is passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of those in the helping professions through better self-care and more sustainable and supportive organizational environments. Jessica has worked in international and domestic disaster response, community mental health, nonprofit management and political advocacy. She can be reached at

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