Memories of a war

James Stockdale, an American navy pilot who spent several years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has written a book about how to face a severe experience with a constructive mind-set and turn it into something that will be a defining event in your life. You must endure it with the conviction that you will eventually come out of it, but also that there are no shortcuts that will make it easier. Each day must have one focus: to make you do what you need to survive with dignity and self-respect even when hope is faint. Yes, the ordeal may put your life at risk, but do not make it rule you or transform you into a lesser person. Afterwards, draw whatever positive conclusions you can for your future – let the experience teach you what is important and what is not.

I have no regrets about my working in Kabul seven years ago, even though the sojourn caused some mental scars that will never go away fully. Those six months in a warzone taught me that the material goods so cherished in my home country turn trivial when my mind harbours vivid memories of ragged children searching for food in a garbage dump and of the thunderclaps from nearby car bombs.

Instead, what has become precious is stretching out a hand to somebody in need and seeing how she thereby gains the power to take herself out of a quandary. What you give will come back to you – perhaps one should call it “the Law of the Echo”?

So when my days come to an end, I wish to leave the world knowing that I have planted good seeds in the fields, grain that will nourish those that come after me. All things said and done, people are what matters – all else is dust.

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