Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hitch-hiker: the walking wounded and the will to live

On the radio, I recently listened to a military chaplain with PTSD, one more article about wounded soldiers from the years of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. After meeting my hitch-hiker, another survivor from a previous war, I was reminded of a favourite book by Victor Frankl , a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps, called 'Man’s Search for Meaning'. He developed a theory ( logo-therapy) about why it was that some survived and others gave up and died. It is a very moving and thoughtful little book.

Suffering: if one cannot change a situation that causes suffering, he can still choose his attitude. ... As we will see, the priority stays with the situation that causes us to suffer. But the superiority goes to the 'know how to suffer' if need be. - those who master a hard lot with their head held high.
To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning. If there is a purpose to life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all his indignities.
Victor Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, “ He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning. By Victor Frankl

I'm driving home past the building where I used to work long ago, when I see the hitch-hiker with her thumb out. I do not make up my mind until the last second and then pull over. Close up, she looks grey and more than a little wild, but then I would expect that from someone outside this community resource place that serves a variety of folk, especially the poor and disadvantaged. She has an unlighted cigarette in one hand, and a squirming mesh bag in the other. She says, “Is my cat ok?”so I nod and they clamber on board. Her eyes are blank, as though there is no one home inside.

We establish that I am going home via a village on my route and that she is going there to check out a place to rent. She is having her government support cut,and is looking for a very cheap little shack. Do I have a little place for an old lady? She never stays long. She will garden, cook, but no, she is not a live-in caregiver either. The people here, they are too rich, they are not interested in communal living, like she did back in the old country where she was born: -during the war. I establish that this means the ethnic conflicts that wrapped the Balkans in horror for so many years.

I ask her to speak more clearly, I am having difficulty hearing her over the sound of the van, and she is prickly, quick to take offence about her accent, but I explain that if I am listening to someone, I really wish to hear what they have to say.

Have I heard of Nikola Tesla? From Serbia you know, like her. No, I do not need to hear her tell it. Just look him up. She is intelligent she says, but no one cares. We wander down the road but our minds are finding traction; I listen carefully and she begins to move past her defences and into neutral territory. She has been to talk to a counsellor at the centre and gotten short shrift. What she does not know is that I once did that same job for a few years, but now I have no agenda or responsibility to make things right for her so this is a meeting of equals. By the time we reach the village we have formed a friendship of sorts. I know about her grown children and how they say that if the old country is so great she should go back there. In Canada, 'Wonderful Canada', they keep you half alive,she says, but at home at least they shoot you cleanly. Have I seen this or that film or actress?

What I am thinking of is an old Meryl Streep film about a talented musician whose mental illness has landed her on skid row as a bag lady. Heaven knows what terrors have accompanied my companion on her road; from her beginnings in war, rape camps and ethnic cleansing and on down through the years. All concerns about whose side did what to whom during those conflicts do matter, but many who survived, from whatever side, are the 'walking wounded' of today. The 'wounded' part is almost a given, few could go through war without it showing, but it is the 'walking' part that has caught my attention; for here is someone who has experienced life in a hard school and yet retained her intelligence, her ironic humour, and her strong will to live on her own terms. We exchange names and birth dates as she get out of the van; “Astrology you know, it helps understand one another on a deeper level”. She helps people find their lost souls if I should ever need her. I wind down the window and wave goodbye and get a wave and a smile from my hitch-hiker in return.

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