Find the courage | Alan Johnston’s story
‘I lay in a dwindling pool of candlelight, listening to the shouting, rowing neighbours and occasional gunshots that are all part of the noisy clamour of Gaza’s poorer neighbourhoods. I felt very, very far from home, trapped, and aghast at how dire my situation was.’
Last year I, along with millions of others watched the inspiring BBC Panorama documentary about Alan Johnston’s capture and eventual release in Gaza.
Alan’s story makes compelling viewing; awestruck by this intelligent dignified and modest man I saw how his story highlights that no matter how bleak your personal circumstances; the biggest battle that we face in desperate times is the inner psychological one.
A review of our basic needs reveals that a sense of inner hope, meaning and control in our lives is essential for emotional and physical well being. But how can some who has been abducted and incarcerated ever have any control?
Johnston’s abduction and one hundred and fourteen days of imprisonment stripped him of physical liberty; but in making certain decisions he managed to take control of some aspects of his daily life and resurrect some independence of mind.
Alan Johnston: the first steps to control his environment
He reported that the time in his cell passed at a crushingly slow pace, hour after long hour he paced the small room, and after a few days became ill from the food and contaminated water. But he managed to persuade his captives to agree to give him chips and boiled water in the future, thus lessening the likelihood that would be weakened by food poisoning again.
‘I told myself that in my captivity there was only one thing that I might be able to control – my state of mind. But much of my mental energy went into the huge effort to confront my many anxieties, the struggle as I saw it, to keep my mind in the right place.
Rehearsing his threatened execution: How he influenced his future reactions
On one occasion his captor said he was going to be executed in the Jihad style, by having his throat cut, this would be videoed and broadcast. One can only imagine what desolation that causes; in the face of such terror he still managed to decide that if that video was going to be the last image that his beloved parents and Sister saw of him he wanted to ensure that it was ‘not of weeping, pleading broken man’
So he rehearsed his death hoping that if it became reality he would retain his dignity and some inner control on how he faced that moment.
This is not the first time that a person in captivity has recognized the need to take some control, to find the courage and to feel that he is more than the product of limiting environmental circumstances. Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s search of meaning’ said that his experience of life in the concentration camps demonstrates that man does have a choice of action, and is not just a reflection of his surroundings.
He believes that no one can take away a human beings freedom to decide, to choose his attitude and behaviour. So in the camps, despite an uncertain future starvation, lack of sleep, disease and mental torment, the way a person became was down to his inner decisions.
Compassion in the death camps: the power to choose behaviour
He remembers seeing daily acts of heroism, the compassion from starving men giving away their bread to another, comforting others who were dying. The struggle to maintain dignity and not act in a primitive way was a battle that many understandably lost.
And those prisoners who gave up hope of better times in the future or resigned themselves to total disempowerment soon melted into apathy and despondency. For most this was the ultimate death sentence. Taking to their beds until they soon died, laying in their own fecal matter, no threat or encouragement had the power to shift them.
Hope can mean the difference between life or death
Frankl vividly recalls the day when subsumed by the pain from his blistered raw feet and anxiety provoking thoughts, he became disgusted at the endless stream of worrying trivia injecting his mind. So he too changed the content of his thoughts, he imagined himself on a platform lecturing to others in a pleasant, warm and well lit hall. This was the moment that he started to rise above the misery of the moment, regain hope and forged his barrier against mental and physical decay.
To be consumed by the pain of the moment, to loose all belief in a time outside of present difficulty eats away at any vestige of human spirit. However, having a sense of hope and a degree of control of your thoughts, appears to generate feelings that acts as a barrier from degenerating into apathy.
The immune system seems to recognize this deadly moment too; in the camps there was an unprecedented rise in the deaths of prisoners between Christmas 1944 and New-Year 1945, the conditions in the camp had not deteriorated the change was in the expectation of the prisoners.
They had believed and hoped that they would be home for Christmas! That hope helped protect them from illness. When Christmas past their dreams of release disintegrated and they simply either lay down to die or met their death through infectious disease.
Johnston used positive thought to get through his incarceration
How Johnston dealt with the torment caused by his imprisonment, uncertain future and constant threat to life was an anchor and ballast in those stormy times. This following quote from Johnston’s story reflects his determination to retain control of his emotional state.
‘And in my prison, I felt that I needed some kind of mental lifeboat, to help me cross the great ocean of time that lay before me, aiming for that almost unimaginable moment far beyond my horizon when I might somehow go free.
And so I took all the positive thoughts I could muster and lashed them together in my mind, like planks in a psychological raft that I hoped would buoy me up.
And in some ways it did. It was one of several mental devices, or tricks, or props that helped me get through.
In this way, I fought what was the psychological battle of my life.
God knows, it was hard, and lonely, and there were many dark passages when I edged close to despair.
But I was always in the fight, and there was no collapse.’
Everyday choices that can make us less emotional and physically stronger.
Thankfully, there will be very few of us that will experience a time that will test our mental endurance to such a degree. However, any choice that orientates your inner thoughts towards hope and possibility can make you feel happier and physically stronger.
Worry and fear have a seductive pull on our mental and physical processes. Controlled by the oldest part of the brain that cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined threat, you can feel overwhelmed by anxiety when just thinking about a negative event that may or may not happen.
Watch what you say to yourself! Your body will hear every word.
When you observe your inner dialogue, you can begin to limit damaging self-talk. Reconnecting with hopeful thoughts, recognising the reasons for forging on through a difficult time or a simple act of deciding not to get in a tizz and relax can make you feel instantly calmer.
If you are stuck in traffic and pushed for time, you can make the difference between experiencing that time feeling fraught and your bodily systems compromised. Alternatively, you can hope for the best outcome, enjoy the moment listening to the radio as your digestion, immune system and cardiovascular processes work to their best.
Hard to achieve? Yes it can be a battle that is hard fought at times, so small changes first! That means I will relax about the deadline for this article has just passed.
Jill Wootton’s 2006 article reproduced with permission from Uncommon Knowledge