Riddle me this…
I wish I could recall where I came across this story: it’s fascinated me since I read it. The setting is Korea, and an American soldier is being held captive. They’re trying to break his will, and do what’s called brainwashing when the guys on that side to it to the guys on your side, but is training when you do it to your own men.
What’s important here is the room that this happens in. There’s a portrait of the Korean leader on one wall, and the brainwashers are intent on getting the soldier to declare his loyalty to it. Hey, something not dissimilar happens (or at least used to) every day in American classrooms when the kids were asked to pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth decorated with stars and stripes. I’m just saying.
Thing being, the soldier has an ace up his sleeve. More accurately, a stamp in his pocket. In the form of an envelope used to contain a letter from his sweetheart back home. On the stamp, an image of a president, a piece of apple pie, or some other item of Americana. And the soldier, when the interrogators are out of the room, puts that stamp on the back of the picture of the Glorious Leader. So when they come back and ask him to salute it, he’s more than happy to do so, since in his mind he’s saluting not a picture of a despot, but the stamp.
I read that, and I was bowled over. First at the ingenuity of what the soldier did at a time of incredible stress and danger. Second, at the truly bizarre nature of what was happening. The soldier managed to save himself through brainwashing himself more effectively than the brainwashers were doing. Looked at in linguistic terms, there were two complex equivalences going on simultaneously. As perceived by the Koreans, the CE went ‘saluting picture = loyal to us’. Whereas for him, the CE was a case of ‘saluting picture = loyal to home’.
What this brings home is the importance of requisite variety. The soldier managed to slip through the intangible grasp of his tormentors by an act of will and imagination. He chose to determine the meaning of his perceptions, rather than allow others to impose theirs. And in the process of this invisible chess game, he maintained…what exactly? Let’s call it his spirit anyway, knowing that there are all kinds of ways to describe what was going on.
It’s only now I realise how commonplace that situation is. The trappings — brainwashing and Korea — describe something that’s so prosaic we miss it much of the time it’s going on. Other people are forever trying to sell me their version of a bad time, and wondering why (most of the time) I refuse to buy into it. I ran into someone yesterday who was telling me what an awful year 2010 was — not for them, but for me! As he described the way my father’s death surely made me feel as he’d felt when his father had died, I recognised that what he said made sense logically. But it didn’t reflect my experience in the slightest.
Dad and I had a great relationship. There are so many good memories, and above all the knowledge that there was nothing left unspoken between us when he died. Regarding which: some people assume I was there at the moment of his death. I wasn’t. I got the news that he’d passed away on the final morning of the beautiful retreat that Michael Breen runs annually in the Chalice Well Gardens at Glastonbury. It was the first time I’d attended the retreat, and it was the perfect place for me to be. It was a truly magical time, and I will always be grateful that I was there. Dad had just come home, and he’d come home to die. He was declining rapidly, and was incoherent by then. We’d already said our goodbyes, and going to Glastonbury was just what I needed at that dismal point.
The retreat itself is a very personal experience. Participants spend much of the time relaxing in various ways that Michael introduces them to, drawing from knowledge of a wide variety of ways to relieve physical, emotional, and mental stress. Michael and his assistant Francesca knew what was going on for me, but none of the other people there did, and that was just what I wanted. What made it even more special was that my place on the retreat was a gift from a client I’d introduced to Michael, David Yeoman, who’d been so taken with the experience that he insisted I have the opportunity to do so as well.
One other person deserves more thanks than I can possibly express for her contribution to making my father’s last weeks as special as they were. Caroline Chapple, who has a true genius for friendship, a knack for being with people that underpins the work she does as a coach, achieving remarkable results as she does. Caroline came to meet my father when he was close to death, and he was in the time they spent together more alive, more himself, than at any other point in those final days. That’s special. Beyond special.
So, when I was being told what an awful year I’d had last year because of my dad dying, I could see what my interrogator was getting at. Not a problem. And I could see that he was suffering still from the pain of his awkward relationship with his father. But that was his story, not mine, so I chose not to allow him to cast that net over me.
All of which is in the realm of meaning: more often than not the process by which we are mean. We’re mean to others, and often to ourselves. And — really, honestly — we don’t have to be. We don’t have to be.