Rough Wisdom

Lessons For War, Peace, and Life

“Bobby Sands — Belfast Murals” by infomatique is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When I look back, I barely recognize the person I was before them. Before I tried to donate money to an unpopular cause and found my offer so gently refused that there wasn’t a trace of awkwardness.

“Please don’t send any money. We have what we need, and if anyone doesn’t, the others share with him. You asked what you can do to help. We’re not interested in your money, but the fact that you’ve put your hand out to us in friendship means the world to us. If you’d consider writing us again sometime, it would be all we could want, and more than we have any right to ask of you.”

The law said I was an adult at the time, but it seems now that I was nothing more than a child. Too innocent, too sensitive, too trusting, and far too eager to be liked. In the ensuing years, I learned some hard lessons from what the world saw as hard men. Lessons that have nothing to do with war and everything to do with living.

The first lesson came quickly. Once it got around that I was doing humanitarian work for Irish POWs, people who had been my friends for years turned on me with shocking suddenness. “You ought to be put against a wall and shot with the rest of your terrorist friends” was a common reaction. The more refined folks just let me know that as long as I was working with those POWs, they didn’t know me. It got to where I’d joke about it. “Oops. Lost another friend today,” I wrote to one POW, adding a “smiley” to show I was laughing. The response from the internment camp was immediate.

“We’re really proud of you for standing up for us,” they wrote, “But you shouldn’t have to suffer on our behalf or lose friends.” They valued my friendship, they said, but would rather lose it than see me suffer for defending it. And that was Lesson One. Friendship is defined by priorities. Given a choice between people who’d turn on me the instant they didn’t agree with me and people who said they’d rather have me turn on them than see me hurt, it was a no-brainer. I’ve never had cause to regret that decision.

The second lesson came right on top of that one. It was an easy one too, though it came as a sort of epiphany. Adults don’t need approval. They certainly don’t need it from everyone they meet. That craving is a holdover from childhood, from the days when “I don’t like you” is the very harshest blow one child can deal another. As adults, we’re capable of distinguishing between those have earned our respect and admiration, and those who haven’t. We have no reason to be affected by anything that might be said about us by any but those few individuals we hold in high regard. Nineteenth century poet, Charles MacKay takes it a step farther, saying that if you have no enemies,

You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

It’s funny how obvious that seems to the person I am now — the one those POWs took such a firm hand in molding.

Other lessons came to me not through experience, but through the blunt words of my mentors. In those days, I was easily angered, easily grieved, and often frustrated beyond words by what was done to them. The man who became my best friend shouted at me more times than I can count, “Every time you let someone make you react emotionally, you’re giving power to your enemy, and he’s won. You act, and make him react. That’s how you win.” He was right. And it’s not all about enemies. Life throws a lot at us. We can let ourselves be emotionally manipulated by it, or we can choose not to. That doesn’t mean giving up entirely on emotions. It just means taking care not to leave our emotions hanging out there as a leash for anyone to lead us around with.

Among my earliest mentors was an ex-POW with zero tolerance for nonsense. I tried his patience regularly. At one point, a group of men I was in contact with were forced by guards to “escape.” They were shoved out through a hole in a fence and ordered at gunpoint to run. For this escape attempt, they were beaten nearly to death, denied medical care, and put into solitary confinement with no clothing, no hot water, and virtually no food. It was enough to make me forget all I knew about putting emotion aside and I’d worked myself up into a proper rant over the fact that I was getting nowhere in resolving the situation.

“Just keep writing to them,” my friend said. “It’ll help them get through it. I’ve been there, so I know.”

“Right,” I snarled back at him. “I’ll send some cute little notes in and that’ll make everything all right, will it?”

My friend drew back and stared at me in apparent shock. “Christ!” he said finally, “If it bothers you that much, go rent yourself a digger and start on the walls of Long Kesh!”

I almost hauled off and slugged him, but then I realized the absurdity of it and I could only laugh. It was probably simplest lesson of all, and yet the hardest to remember. You do what you can do. Sometimes it’s not enough. But it’s all you have. You can focus your energy there, or you can focus it on knocking your head against a wall you’ll never get through.

So these days, when I find myself frustrated and overwhelmed by a task that seems too big for me to handle, I simply step back from it and ask myself, “What’s it cost to rent a digger, anyway?”

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