Saturday, October 18, 2014

Forgiving the Unforgivable

Last week, my wife and I watched the movie, Philomena, for the first time. Based on a true story, the film tells about an Irish woman’s  years-long search for the illegitimate son who was taken from her as a baby and sold for adoption by a Catholic nunnery. Near the end of the movie, Philomena and the journalist who had been helping her confront the old nun primarily responsible for keeping the mother and son apart. Astonishingly, Philomena turns to the nun and says, “I want you to know, Sister, that I forgive you.” The journalist, who is focused on retribution, is stunned. How can such forgiveness be possible?

While doing research on my second novel, Hold Back the Sun, and the sequel I have just begun, I studied several books that detailed the suffering of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and interned civilians during the Pacific war. These prisoners were beaten, worked like slaves, and systematically starved during their entire captivity. Some women were forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese Army. The POW Research Network Japan reported that some 27 percent of military prisoners died in captivity. Crew members of ships taking former Dutch internees from Indonesia to Holland reported that after meals, the women viewed food as so precious that they would sweep the crumbs off the dining tables and save them for eating later.

This week, Anna Fifield had an article in the Washington Post about a visit to Japan by several 90-something-year-old former POWs. After detailing the horrors the men experienced, Fifield states that, “What was striking about the three former POWs was not just how little resentment they harbored but how happy they seemed for Japan.” She quotes one as saying, “I get a kick out of seeing how well this nation is doing.”

One of my research sources is the book, Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose. The wartime memoir of an American missionary interned for years in a camp on Makassar, Rose relates the horrors endured by the women, but goes on to tell of how she was concerned with changing the hearts of her captors. Forgiveness was at the core of her beliefs.  In my research, I encountered other references to former prisoners forgiving their previous tormentors.

How can people find it within themselves to forgive the unforgivable? I believe that both Philomena and Darlene Deibler Rose found their forgiveness in their religion. Both were dedicated Christians. For the old soldiers, the reasons are less clear.  Forgiving one’s enemies, however, isn’t just a Christian concept. Confucius is quoted as advising, “He who refuses to forgive burns the bridges over which he, too, must cross.” The Buddha wrote that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Many in today’s world might consider the forgiving people above to be insane. For decades, the mantra of many has been, “Don’t get mad, get even.” Payback has become a prized concept. Hate, revenge and retribution seem to be the order of the day. I find that I can no longer subscribe to such notions. Novelist Jack Higgins frequently quoted the old proverb, “Before departing on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves.” The second grave, of course, was for the avenger. There is wisdom in those words. Hate corrodes the human spirit. I do not have enough time left in my life to waste any on hatred. To paraphrase Gandhi, “If everyone practiced ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the world would be filled with toothless blind people.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Use It or Lose It

When a younger performer suggested that country music legend George Jones and other older singers should step aside and leave the scene to the next generation, Jones responded with a new popular song called, I Don’t Need No Rocking Chair!” The song is a vigorous defense of the contributions that older people still have to make to society. I have subscribed whole heartedly to this position since I adopted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses as my philosophy as a teenager. Tennyson has the ancient Greek hero speak these words to the surviving crew who shared his twenty-year voyage home from Troy:
My mariners,
Souls’ that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me
   That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and oppos’d
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Mov’d earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I don’t believe that, when looking at me, most people see an Indie author of three novels that have won awards and appeared on bestseller lists.  Yet, although I am in my 79th year, except for some creakiness when I get up in the morning, I don’t feel like an old person.  This didn’t just happen by chance. Before I began publishing Indie novels at 75, I was beginning to slow down. Even as this was happening, I realized that much of it was my own fault. There is an old adage about aging that says, “use it or lose it.” I was not using either my body or my brain enough. Armed with exercise sheets provided by my doctor, I was able to minimize the aches and pains that were invading my body by regular exercise. Reactivating my brain required that my mental faculties be worked just as rigorously.

Entering the Indie author arena came rather naturally to me. I had aspired to be a novelist all my life. Several manuscripts that I had started over the years were still in my computer. The eBook revolution taking place in book publishing provided opportunity. The Internet makes research infinitely easier that in my earlier years. But preparing and publishing eBooks is hard work that demands meticulous attention. Completely focusing the mind is required. But the more I wrote, the sharper my mind seemed to become. I enjoy life much more now than I did in my mid-70s. 

My current role model is the South African novelist, Wilbur Smith. The author of scores of highly successful novels, Smith has done some of his best writing in his 70s and 80s, including #1 Bestsellers. At 81, he has just published the latest in his series dealing with ancient Egypt, Desert God. The book became an instant bestseller in Great Britain when published there. Look for it on the New York Times Bestseller List in the next few months. I have written before that if you want to understand Africa, read Wilbur Smith’s novels. I follow him on Facebook, and I am amazed to read his posts about salmon fishing in Norway and exhaustive book signing tours in Great Britain. He keeps both his body and his mind continuously active.

I know that I will never be anywhere near as good a writer as Wilbur Smith. But I can aspire to emulate his active lifestyle. Like him, I hope to continue writing as long as I am physically able. I don’t enjoy feel like an old man.