The amaz­ing power of the hu­man spirit

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Opinion - PETER WOODS

Why is it al­ways the chil­dren who pay the price for adult ar­ro­gance and ag­gres­sion?

If you haven’t seen the face of Amal Hus­sain you may not want to.

The image of this ema­ci­ated seven-year-old girl taken by NY Times pho­tog­ra­pher Tyler Hicks has be­come the face of the war in Ye­men where mil­lions are starv­ing to death.

The pho­to­graph has a fa­mil­iar feel to it. Wide eyes stare blankly off to one side from a skull that looks shrinkwrapped in her own skin.

Amal’s death-head lay above a chest in which ev­ery rib could be counted like prison bars in­car­cer­at­ing her soul as she clung to life. She died on Oc­to­ber 27.

We have seen th­ese pic­tures be­fore. Bi­afra, Dji­bouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Belsen and Dachau.

Why is it al­ways the chil­dren who pay the price for adult ar­ro­gance and ag­gres­sion?

More per­ti­nently, how do moth­ers bear the pain of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their chil­dren starve? “My heart is bro­ken,” said Amal’s mother, Mariam Ali, who wept dur­ing a NY Times phone in­ter­view. “She was al­ways smil­ing.”

How do hu­mans keep go­ing in un­bear­able suf­fer­ing?

Part of the an­swer is how we seek mean­ing in the chaos, keep­ing our hearts open to pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences.

But is it pos­si­ble to still find mean­ing when you are in hell?

Psy­chi­a­trist Vic­tor Frankl gives us a glimpse of this pos­i­tive ca­pac­ity from his own ex­pe­ri­ence as a Holo­caust sur­vivor in Nazi Ger­many.

Rid­ing a train headed for an undis­closed labour camp, which all be­lieved was go­ing to be Auschwitz, he writes,’. . . we be­came more and more tense as we ap­proached a cer­tain bridge over the Danube which the train would have to cross to reach the town ac­cord­ing to ex­pe­ri­enced trav­el­ling com­pan­ions. Those who have never seen any­thing sim­i­lar can­not pos­si­bly imag­ine the dance of joy per­formed in the car­riage by the prison­ers when they saw that our trans­port was not cross­ing the bridge and was in­stead head­ing “only” for Dachau.’

‘And again, what hap­pened at our ar­rival in that camp, af­ter a jour­ney last­ing two days and three nights?

“There had not been enough place for us all to sit at the same time, so we took turns squat­ting on the urine-soaked straw.

“When we stopped, the first im­por­tant news the older prison­ers told us was, ‘Dachau has no chim­neys!’ This meant no ovens, no cre­ma­to­rium, no gas.

“It meant that per­sons who be­came too sick to work would not be gassed and burnt im­me­di­ately but would have to wait some ex­tra days to be taken to Auschwitz in the sick con­voy to be killed there.’

“This joy­ful sur­prise put us all in a good mood.

“We laughed and cracked jokes in spite of and dur­ing all we had to go through in the next few hours of a sadis­tic pun­ish­ment pa­rade be­cause one of our mem­bers missed roll call by fall­ing asleep from ex­haus­tion in the car­riage.

“We were in a camp with no chim­ney, and Auschwitz was a long way off!”

Our coura­geous hu­man spirit is greater than life’s bru­tal­ity.

● Peter Woods is a pas­toral coun­sel­lor.

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