“Freedom has a taste to it to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.” – Written on a prison wall by a captive in Vietnam
I heard once that the purpose of a crisis is not to break us as much as it is to break us open. As Remembrance Day approaches in Canada, I felt it important to honour our veterans and find strength from their courage. May we use this pandemic as an opportunity to open our hearts and examine our lives more deeply as we find the courage to keep walking with compassion and authenticity.
What has given me strength and inspiration through this pandemic is to compare our current reality to the lives of people who had it much worse than what we are experiencing now. With Remembrance Day upon us, I have been reading about the experiences of POWs and the horrors many experienced. It is impossible to imagine the unfathomable atrocities and man’s inhumanity to man throughout the two World Wars and the numerous wars since. We’ve heard of months of solitary confinement, suffocating heat, freezing cold, grueling physical and psychological torture, humiliation, slave labour, constant hunger, disease, and unimaginable mental duress the POW’s endured. And yet, time and again, darkness could not overcome the light that helped so many of the sick and scarred to the other side.
In honour of our veterans this month I offer three lessons that POWs can teach us about surviving – and thriving – in times of crisis. Lest we forget…
Stay Connected. One crucial means of survival in the camps was to form strong bonds with fellow prisoners. Having a small group of three to four mates was essential. Within these small pods they shared food and workload and nursed each other when they were sick. British RAF aircraftsman Derek Fogarty, a Japanese POW, recalled in a 2008 interview: “You bonded like a brother. If a person was sick you took them water, you did their washing. We were so close, and got closer and closer over the years; people would die for their mates; that’s how close things got.” Without their mates, many more prisoners would have died. Captain David Arkush remembered how “everybody had dysentery. They lay in their own excrement. Unless they had a mucker, a pal, to look after them, they stood little chance of survival.”
Even when confronted with solitary confinement, POWs depended on secret communication with their fellow captives to relay vital information, and to keep up morale. It was said that POWs in a German camp in World War II communicated between buildings undetected by tapping a secret code on a common water pipe.
We may not need a lot of people, but we need a strong band of allies.
Get Stronger. POWs who were able to survive their ordeals found a way to be with the torment by keeping themselves strong – mentally, physically, and spiritually. Rather than expecting the hardship to diminish (which they couldn’t control), they worked at getting stronger to counter it. To quote American author, Van Jones, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”
For some POWs, strength came from the incredible encouragement they gave each other; for others, from their imagination – a vision for a better future; for others, faith that the trying times had a purpose and would make them stronger. For many, a positive attitude and humour were a key to survival. All of them had a disciplined way of keeping a strong mind. As former POW Captain Eugene McDaniel wrote, “All I had was tomorrow, and maybe that was the height of my confidence. Well then, I would make tomorrow count for something.” For still others, honestly facing their fears and doubts gave them the strength to go on.
Admiral Jim Stockdale, who Jim Collins referred to in his classic book, Good To Great, was held captive in a prison camp in Vietnam for seven years. When asked how he did not allow his oppressive circumstances to beat him down, he talked about facing the honest truth of one’s situation. “You have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail – get out of this – but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person…” He also commented on who didn’t make it out of those circumstances: “It was the optimists. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart…. You must never, ever, ever confuse the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints, with the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”
Be Needed. It is a fundamental human need to know that we matter, that we make some kind of impact, to feel needed.Humans can carry a deep-seated fear that life is futile, that death will surprise us when our song is still unsung. Whether we are employed or unemployed, laid-off or retired, have a fulfilling career or a “dead-end-job,” we all need to know, deep inside, that the life we are living matters.
During WW II, across the camps, the POWs who stayed strong and vital pooled their skills and trades to help one another. Doctors, denied tools or medicine, needed the expertise of others. Medical orderly and former plumber, Fred Margarson, ran secret POW workshops at Chungkai hospital camp in Thailand where he supervised the making of artificial legs for tropical ulcer patients. His friend Gordon Vaughan, a Post Office engineer before the war, made vital medical instruments for examining dysentery patients from old tin cans, and surgical forceps from pairs of scissors. Those who stayed strong within the confines of the camps lived through giving of themselves. Comforting others. Giving away their last spoonful of rice. Putting others ahead of their own comfort.
Each one of us makes a difference. Each one of us is required. Look around you. See where you can help. Be needed.
Every single veteran—whether they are alive, no longer with us, a POW or MIA—deserves our utmost respect and support. May we never forget. May we continue to honour them. And may we continue to allow them to inspire us and teach us.