I haven’t eaten in days.
I’ve been sitting with my legs crossed in a small cell with the palms of my hands out for 24 hours straight.
I’m at the point where I can’t do it any longer. I drop my hands and lean over, exhausted.
A guard peers in through a small hatch. I make eye contact. He yells out something unintelligible, unlatches the heavy steel door, grabs me by the neck, and slaps me in the face.
“Resume the position,” he yells with his thick Slavic accent.
This happens every hour or so.
Ever so often during this terrifying ordeal, a guard comes in, lifts me up, throws a cloth bag over my head, and leads me out of the cell. It’s time for my interrogation.
They drag me across the compound. I arrive somewhere. They lift the bag off my head.
I’m in a small room dimly lit by a lamp on the desk where a stocky, mustached interrogator sits. He’s a chunky man decorated in a Warsaw Pact-style uniform. I’m asked questions. I only answer with Name, Rank and Serial Number. He smiles.
I’m presented with a document to sign. He tells me, “it’s just a piece of paper letting your country know that you’re here.” I refuse to sign. The mustached man tries to bribe me with a steak dinner and politeness. I still don’t sign.
Another man comes in. He’s a tall, weasel looking fellow with mischief in his eyes. He tells me to put my heels against the back wall. He grabs my shirt, leans me forward and then slams my back against the wall. My head snaps back. A big thud echoes throughout the lifeless room. He does it again. And again. And again. I still don’t sign.
The polite, mustached man tells me, “see, my friend, it would be so much easier if you would just sign this document.”
I stared at him and just smiled.
The weasel-looking fellow heaves me out of the room.
Now, they are both angry. They call me names. They drag me to the back of the building.
There are small wooden boxes placed on the ground. They look like coffins. I’m forced into one. The guard in charge slams the lid shut but my head isn’t all the way down yet. The lid cracks my skull. Blood drips down my face as I lie defeated with anger and despair in the coffin. Every few minutes the guards would slap their nightsticks against the coffin with all their might and yell “no sleeping.”
After an hour or so I’m taken back to my cell. I resume the position.
I sit here, alone, uncomfortable, with nothing but memories and the insatiable dread of the next beating. There’s a little coffee can in the corner that I’m told is my toilet. I’m hearing the excruciating sound of babies wailing from the speakers somewhere in the compound. I haven’t had food in days. I start hallucinating. I’m seeing faces in the cracks & crevices of the block walls. I see demons staring at me from the cold floor. My mind wanders to places it has never been before.
Forgotten memories come flooding back.
This is what it’s like to suffer.
This scenario happened when I was in the Navy. Because I was an aircrewman, I was required to attend SERE school ( Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape).
This school is a requirement for all pilots and aircrewman. It’s a simulated P.O.W. camp that gives you the experience of being tortured. Sounds awesome, right? Basically, it teaches you how to survive a real life capture behind enemy lines. And it’s extremely realistic.
The school starts off with a little classroom study. They teach you basic survival skills and the 6 articles of the Code of Conduct. You then must survive out in the Maine mountains for a couple of days. In my case, it was early April. Snow still sat thick in the woods. We hiked with snowshoes on our feet. We slept in little shelters we made from sticks and snow. The dark nights brought in freezing temps.
I was hungry and sleep deprived by the time I was captured by the enemy.
The instructors (enemies) are phenomenal actors with convincing accents and hard slaps. After days out in the wilderness, you’re captured and sent to a P.O.W. camp.
Once they found me, I was hooded with my hands tied behind my back and thrown into the back of a huge truck. There are about 15 of us. They stripped us down, sprayed us with freezing water, humiliated us, mocked us, and beat us.
I had a new tattoo on my arm. They didn’t like it so they beat me for it.
When I finally arrived at the brutal camp, I spent hours building a wall with bricks. I was forced to. The camp guard came over after I was done, kicked it down and yelled, “start again.”
I threw the bricks down and just sat there on my knees. The guard snarled something degrading, and with full force, slaps my face clear across the barbed-wired compound. I was numb. Everything was numb.
“Start again,” he barks.
Even though in the back of your mind you know this is just a school, it still doesn’t take the dread away. Or the hopelessness. By the time you sit in your cell for a few hours, alone, hungry, cold, dirty, and sore, and you’re constantly forced to hear that terrifying noise coming out of the speakers, you forget that it’s just a school.
You start to believe it’s real. It feels like a lifetime you’re in there. Like this is your new reality.
They beat you, they waterboard you, they put you in isolation for long periods of time and they force you to do prison labor.
You’re given the full experience of being a P.O.W. Then, at the end, you’re graded and given advice and some tactics on how to better cope with being in that type of hell hole.
It was an experience that’ll stay with you forever.
Embrace the suffering and listen to what it has to teach.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a very disagreeable place in life that is beyond our control. I’ve learned that there are only two ways in handling situations like this:
1. We can dwell on the horrific situation at hand, run away from the pain, complain to deaf ears and give up hope, which, unfortunately, leads to despair.
Or 2. We can embrace the difficult dilemma we find ourselves in and think of it as a necessity for the development of inner strength and spiritual growth.
The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, took on this important subject in his exemplary book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
During the Holocaust, he found that those who were more likely to survive the abominable conditions at Auschwitz were those who embraced the reality of their suffering rather than those who let their minds deter back into the past. He found that, in his words:
robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.
The great German philosopher, Nietchze, valued the idea of suffering and truly believed it essential for the growth of the human spirit:
Life without pain is meaningless. Pain is the source of all value in the word. It is the test of one’s true worth. And it is as sacred as the Gods.
Nietchze believed that the body was made to suffer so as to enable the mind to create beautifully profound works of art and ideas. He believed suffering was essential in becoming a person of substance, just as pain and suffering in the gym are required to build a strong physique.
Looking back at these dreadful few days of my past, what I’ve come to learn is that a crucial component to living a potent life is to not run away from the inevitable hardships that arise. Instead, embrace them, taste them, burn with them, and listen closely to what they try to teach us.
As Frankl reminds us, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”