“We should be inspired by people who show that human beings can be kind, brave, generous, beautiful, strong — even in the most difficult circumstances.”
— Rachel Corrie
Though few are forced to find out, I doubt there is anyone who would not be motivated toward survival if placed in life’s most dire conditions.
Being brave comes from a subjective point of view. When I interviewed a POW survivor, I quickly realized his experience while held captive in Vietnam was forever etched so deeply that it changed his ability to bear the simple conversations the rest of us have about what we consider daily challenges.
Paul Kari told me when he finally was able to return to his family farm in Ohio, in hopes of reclaiming it, he was not stymied by the reality that his parents had sold it, considering him dead. They had moved out west, in hopes of putting the pain of his loss behind them. His wife, too, had moved on, as he was assumed dead.
Their son had survived the most unspeakable acts of torture while serving as one of the longest-held prisoners of war in Vietnam. How did he rise above the constant beatings and starvation? By picturing himself back on the family farm.
He told me it was the farm that helped him hold on, day after day. “I could put myself there, and rise above the reality I was forced to endure. One day, I told myself, I will be back working that land, enjoying my mother’s cooking when noon came each day,” he told me.
Upon returning to the States to work through rehabilitation, blind from starvation, Lt. Col. Kari learned that the farm he had held on to had been sold. In spite of the hurdles to reclaim life as he once knew it, the freed officer refused to accept negative circumstances. He worked on his health, regained his strength and waited for the farm to become available.
On the day I interviewed him, his new wife and their 7-year-old daughter joined us in the farmhouse kitchen. Paul Kari was proud of all he had accomplished and was perhaps most pleased to be able to call his childhood farm and home his own. He was kind and generous, but he was also filled with such tense, high energy I could barely keep up with him as I tried to learn his life story.
He acknowledged his demons. He was unable to enjoy his tractor cab without leaving the door open. The door to every room in his house was to be left ajar, or better yet, wide open, at all times.
His sleep was haunted by nightmares, at times causing his wife harm before awakening. He had no patience for the typical complaints of a very young daughter, knowing as he scolded her for small things she was blameless. His standards were from an entirely different world, beyond the grasp of most mortals of any age.
Life unfolds for each of us in incredibly varied ways. When I find myself impatient with others, I recall having spent days with Lt. Col. Kari, who was often agitated by seemingly tiny infractions. Though impossible, when I at least attempted to view the world through the lens he did, I could find acceptance and understanding. It proved powerful.
My life was changed by getting to know this man and writing his life story. I carry this life lesson with me, and always will.
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