Friday, October 3, 2008

The Truth About Defeat

I’m a strong woman. Passionate, persistent and often proud. I was raised to know that failure is a way to learn, explore and grow—that when one falls, getting back up is the sign of one’s true character. But what about defeat?

All of those words of wisdom and experience are great material for writing, but when one is in the darkest moments of life they are tough to hear. In fact, it is tough to hear most anything when feeling down like that. The world seems silent. Dark. Empty. Cold and harsh.

And that is a truth about defeat that few will admit. Because when we are defeated, eroded, discouraged and in the depths of despair, it is all we can do to keep going. There is no time or inspiration for writing or exploring thoughts, even calling out for help is troublesome. It is tough to remain resilient when our hopes are dashed and our dreams discolored. But what if we are suddenly the only beacon of hope, and find ourselves leading a group of similarly distraught brethren?

In one of my interviews I spoke with a man who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for many years. He was separated, alone, and unsure of whether or not he would see his family again. But instead of focusing on those negative thoughts, he made the most of being a prisoner of war for the sake of survival. He learned English. Learned to play the guitar. Wrote and sang love songs about his wife. And became an inspiration to those around him.

How, among so much darkness and despair, was he able to hold his head high? How was he able to see opportunity in such horrible conditions? How could I sit across from him and understand the dark details of his experience? How could I pull out those stories hidden behind his kind and warm smile?

In the moments of that interview, he started to look like my late grandfather. But it was more than his skin tone and honest eyes. It was more than his small frame that contradicted his great spirit. In those moments, I saw in him my grandfather’s warmth and kindness, strength of character, love of life and family, and hope for a brighter future. In those moments, sitting across from one anther, he took the very shape of my grandfather—a powerfully restrained man but a joker, and above all else a loving husband, father, Christian, and a Marine.

How I ached to sit across from my grandfather once more and hear his stories about serving in World War II, to hear his voice and see his smile again. How I ached just to be near him, feel his hug and powerful presence. Today, my grandmother still runs her fingers over the photo and telegram she sent to him during the war, stating that he now had a baby boy (my father). We pull out those cherished photo albums and look through the black and white prints regularly.

In the moments of our interview I saw so many similarities between this new friend and my beloved grandfather, despite drastic differences. How can I—a young, white American girl with no military experience—be lucky enough to learn about such important matters from the people that lived through them? How can I be lucky enough to be introduced to such honorable unsung heroes? At times, it feels like it’s too much. At times, I get lost in the harsh realities and feel I might explode if changes do not take shape.

Take the news articles I posted earlier for example. One article reveals negotiations between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to clean up environmental damage cause during the war. Another reveals a mass grave of communist fighters in the central highlands. And another reveals that a journalist was arrested for taking photos of protesters. Where is the article that reveals the U.S. has decided to include human rights regulations in all of these negotiations? Where is the article that states the U.S. is addressing the plight of the Montagnard people?

My heart has ached recently. As a result of the defeat I have faced (in matters unrelated to this film), I have felt my head drop, my walk become less confident, and the smile fade from my face. Instead, my first wrinkle has appeared and my hopes have been discouraged. In the past year, I have become eroded and my passion and energy have faded. I’ve seen defeat and discouragement. And now, having connected two drastically opposite experiences, I see that the difference is not his surroundings versus mine, but rather the thoughts that spread like a sickness. Negativity is infectious.

I’m an optimist. I like to think that good comes from bad. I like to think that we can improve our lot by working hard and behaving admirably. But my optimism has been tested, and now, thanks to my Montagnard friend, I have learned (again) the valuable lesson that we cannot let outside forces affect us negatively. We cannot, no matter the circumstances, let others keep us from doing good. And, equally important, leadership is an honor and a privilege. Defeat is not an option.

In preparation for tomorrow’s interview, I have been reading a book titled Beyond Nam Dong, written by Col. Roger H. C. Donlon, the first to receive a Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. In his book he describes his life experiences, and the moment he came across a church bulletin after enlisting in the Air Force. In the bulletin was printed the following, which feels fairly appropriate to repeat here. As I ponder thoughts of how strong these men are, how each time they were faced with a challenge they stepped up to face it, and how each time defeat and discouragement taunted them they stood with iron will against such strong forces.


Philosophy of Life

Believe it or not --

Once upon a time the Devil decided to go out of business. He offered his tools for sale to whoever would pay the price.

On the night of the sale, they were all attractively displayed, a bad-looking lot. They were Malice, Hatred, Envy, Jealousy, Sensuality, Deceit, and all the other implements of evil. Each was marked with its price.

Apart from the rest lay a harmless looking wedge-shaped tool, much worn, yet priced higher than any of the others. Someone asked the Devil what it was.

"That is Discouragement," was the reply.

"Why do you have it priced so high?"

"Because," replied the Devil, "it is more useful to me than any of the others. I can pry open and get inside a man's conscience with that when I could not get near him with any of the others, and once inside, I can use him in whatever way suits me best. It is so much worn because I use it with nearly everybody, as very few people yet know it belongs to me."

It hardly needs to be added that the Devil had such a high price on Discouragement that it was never sold. He still owns it and is still using it. Beware of it!

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