Human courage in extreme situations continually astounds. I recently heard about a Vietnam documentary which looked at the story of several American soldiers who were captured by the VietCong. They were locked in separate cells, and no communication was allowed. At one point in the documentary one of the soldiers, sitting calmly in a chair, vividly describes how one day he gave up, and tried to kill himself. With nothing in the room to use, no clothes on his body, he stood and smashed his forehead against the wall until he passed out. He didn’t die.
Many people say suicide is the cowards way out, but in this circumstance it was, without doubt, an act of incredible bravery. An act of a man pushed to the very limit. During the documentary, the man is asked if he was aware of what he was doing, after a slight pause he replies.
“Of course I was….“
In day to day life we will never get close to that kind extreme. Our bodies and minds are cushioned, protected.
How would you react in that kind of situation? There is no answer of course, you can’t simulate that kind of experience in your mind, and you certainly wouldn’t want to simulate it physically.
Another sequence in the documentary: Once again one of the captured soldiers sits passively, almost morose, in a chair and describes in graphic detail, one of his torture sessions. I will spare you the details. At one point, he says,
“I was in so much pain that it no longer registered. I then realised that they couldn’t hurt me any more. I lifted my head, and looked my tormentor in the eyes, holding his gaze. He looked back, burst into tears and ran screaming from the room. I don’t know what he saw in my eyes.“
None of the soldiers gave up any information. None were decorated by their country. None returned heroes. They were forgotten.
There is much more to say about the incredible strength of human will, the courage we can muster in extreme situations, but I’m not able to get past one thing – a sense of awe, a sense of relief. Relief that it wasn’t me.