I was moved to tears today when I read the heartfelt and inspiring letter penned by Kayla Mueller, the American hostage whose murder by the terror group ISIS was confirmed in the media on February 10, 2015. Kayla was kidnapped while volunteering for the humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, in Syria in August 2013 and was held captive until her death in early 2015. The letter that former cell mates delivered to her family subsequent to their release reveals a beautiful, courageous young woman with a remarkably resilient spirit. In part the letter reads:
“Everyone, if you are receiving this letter, it means I am still detained but my cell mates have been released…..I wanted to write you a well thought out letter, but I could only write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears.
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one thing you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no one else…..and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
“I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness and surrender to God as well and have formed a bond of love and support amongst one another….
“I miss you all as if it has been a decade of forced separation. I have had many a long hour to think, to think of all the things I will do with Lex, our first family camping trip , the first meeting at the airport. I have had many hours to think how only in your absence have I finally at 25 years old come to realize your place in my life. The gift that is each one of you and the person I could and count not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support……
“I wrote a song some months ago that says, “The part of me that pines the most also gets me out of bed; w/out your hope there would be nothing left….” aka The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength…..
All my everything, Kayla”
This exceptional young woman was wise beyond her years. At the age of 25, she understood lessons of life that some people many years her senior never fully grasp. In these brief words, she was able to communicate to her family, and now to the rest of the world, that she recognized that even in the most dire of circumstances, she still had access to the only real capacity that any of us truly ever has, the power over how we respond to a situation and the capacity to find meaning in even the most dire of circumstances.
Kayla Mueller may or may not have been familiar with the work of Victor Frankl, the Jewish, Austrian psychiatrist who survived the horrors of Auschwitz while countless others, including his wife and other members of his immediate family met a fatal end, but Ms. Mueller certainly embodies Frankl’s philosophy. The lessons that Dr. Frankl learned in Auschwitz and spent his life refining and teaching can be summed up as follows: There is great “importance in finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living” (Wikipedia).
Kayla Mueller clearly found purpose in her suffering…..the peace in surrendering her life to something greater than herself and the hope of reuniting with her loved ones. When all human dignities were stripped from him, Dr. Frankl found purpose and meaning in his relationships with those who he cherished the most – even when he was deprived of contact with these very people. In an oft quoted excerpt from his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl reveals that the capacity to choose to focus one’s thoughts on that which matters most serves as tremendous buffer against pain even in the midst of cruel and inhumane treatment:
“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”1
Both Frankl and Mueller demonstrate what modern psychologist have termed a “resilient spirit” – the capacity to endure extreme challenge and suffering and emerge, not bitter, but better. Another trauma survivor, Jerry White, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when his organization, Survivor Corp, lead the International Movement to Ban Landmines. At the age of 19, White was studying Hebrew while on a study abroad trip to Israel. He and two friends decided to spend their last days in the Holy Land hiking and camping in Northern Israel. While exploring in the Golan Heights, they went off the beaten path with the intent to set up camp on a nearby hill. As they were making their way to what appeared to be an ideal camp site, White stepped on a land mine and lost one leg and badly injured the other. Through his arduous experiences in recovery, White both refined and revealed an amazingly resilient spirit and he subsequently dedicated his life to helping those who suffer from trauma rebuild their lives and come to the realization that “disasters bring blessing through growth – depending on how a person responds to them.”2 In his book, which details the account of his traumatic injury and his road to recovery, White teaches trauma survivors five key steps to healing from any ordeal, as paraphrased follows:
- Face Facts – Accept the reality of your circumstances no matter how devastating or disappointing they may be. Denying the reality of your “new reality” will only prolong healing and stunt personal growth.
- Choose Life – Make a commitment to yourself that you will choose to embrace the life as it presents itself to you – no matter how radically different it might be from your ideal or your former circumstances.
- Reach Out – Reach out for connection to others who can provide you with much needed empathy and support .
- Get Moving – Literally get moving physically through exercise and activity. Movement restores health, eases stress and generates motivation – so get up and move whether you feel like it initially or not!!!
- Give Back – Find ways to make a meaningful contribution to the world around you. Take your tragedy and turn it into your triumph by taking the wisdom, the depth, the empathy and the sensitivity that you have acquired through your struggle and give back to the world in ways that are significant and purposeful. 3
We may never know the horrors of imprisonment or the intense suffering of physical disfigurement, but we all suffer and we all experience some degree of trauma in our lives. At those times, may we remember those who have endured their distress with great dignity, a sense of purpose and meaning and who found a way to forge a more refined character as a result of the ordeals that they have endured.
- Man’s Search for Meaning, Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”, Viktor Frankl, Pocket Books, ISBN 978-0-671-02337-9pp. 56–57
- “I Will Not Be Broken,” Jerry White, 2008
- “I Will Not Be Broken,” Jerry White, 2008
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