A transformative power of hope

  • Published
  • By Col. John E. Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
Deep in the jungle, on the banks of the slow moving Kwai Noi River, 1,740 bronze headstones solemnly remember the lives of great men. The heroes buried in this remote stretch of jungle were members of several allied nations' armed services who perished while serving as Prisoners of War in Japanese labor camps during World War II. These were men who died building and maintaining the infamous Thailand-Burma railway, which included the notorious "Bridge on the River Kwai."

More than half of the 230,000 POWs who built the "Death Railway" as it became known perished while doing so--a POW lost for every railroad tie laid. By night these men had to survive the squalor of labor camps, while by day they were marched out to suffer in the intense jungle heat and humidity. Some died where they worked and were buried in the riverbanks of the jungle where they fell; their graves marked solely by bottles holding their nametags. Most, however, died in the shabby labor camps themselves. Exhausted from work and overcome by starvation, they became, in their own words, "living skeletons."

The prisoners of one such camp, known simply as Camp #2 in Chungkai, Thailand, lived a life of unimaginable horror. Positioned deep within the jungle, the harshness of the environment was overshadowed only by the heartlessness of the enemy.

Prisoners were subjected to harsh physical demands, made all the worse by the extreme conditions of their environment. Often forced to survive on a meager daily ration of a single lump of rice, those who failed to adequately complete their assigned tasks were routinely beaten, bayoneted, or beheaded. If that were not enough, prisoners routinely found themselves facing long periods of solitary confinement that contributed to an overwhelming sense of isolation.

Fighting Misery, Selfishness, and Despair

Yet despite the harshness of their conditions, the prisoners boldly sought to fight against their despair by supporting each other whenever and wherever they could. Their promise to themselves and to the rest of the prisoners was that they would demonstrate compassion and care to those around them whenever and however they could. In this small way, the prisoners of Camp #2 believed that if they placed their last remaining hopes in all they had left, one another, they could not be defeated!

By defining their goals in terms of willpower, compassion, and mutual support, they encouraged one another to resist the overwhelming conditions. Their willingness to pursue the possibility of a better future together fostered conditions for the seeds of hope, the expectation of future good, to blossom and grow.

However, after many months of psychological and physical abuse, the will of the prisoners appeared to be breaking as they began to increasingly focus inward instead of outward. Their promise to stick together began to fade as many who had once embraced honor and sacrifice started to succumb to selfishness. Now fighting for food and stealing from friends, the law of the jungle became the norm in the camp. Dignity began to be displaced by despair and the original commitment to "how can we serve one another?" degenerated into a self-centered "what must I do to serve myself?"

The guards sensed that they were succeeding in breaking the spirit of the prisoners and were all too pleased to help each man find his way deeper into his own hellish universe. In time, the guards found they no longer needed the 3 x 3 crates for solitary confinement; one by one, each man had already isolated himself in his own misery. Although more than 10,000 men now found themselves crowded together in a very small space, they felt infinitely alone, their sense of hope steadily slipping away.

And then, almost instantly, everything changed. 

Second-Mile Leaders Sharing Hope 

Two newcomers to the camp, Australian born Colonel Edward "Weary" Dunlop and Scottish born Captain Ernest Gordon, arrived bringing with them a renewed focus and contagious commitment. Where others in the camp had fallen into the trap of focusing solely on self-preservation, these two men intentionally chose to focus on others.
They started small at first, willfully sharing meals and comforting others when and where they could. When men struggled to complete their assigned duties, they selflessly offered to finish the job. Bandaging bruises, washing wounds, and scraping sores, these men took every opportunity to serve those in their midst.
Colonel Dunlop turned the bamboo hut that served as a "death ward" into a camp hospital, organized medical assistants, and began to prescribe hope to even the most broken of prisoners. During the day he fulfilled his work details for the Japanese and always returned at night to tend to patients.

Meanwhile, Captain Gordon chose to reach out to others by becoming the camp's unofficial chaplain, defiantly opening a makeshift open-air church. He organized an education system, starting courses in history, philosophy, economics, mathematics, and foreign languages. Gordon was even able to form an orchestra and a theater, intentionally assigning a different kind of task to everyone he encountered.

One by one, others began to follow the example of the newcomers. Prisoners stopped focusing solely on their own hardships and instead, found new hope in the world around them. In essence, they found new eyes through which to see their situation in a different light. Although their conditions had not been altered, something within them had. That is, they once again were able to see hope where it mattered most--in one another!

Together, Dunlop and Gordon did all they could to reach out to others, inspiring their fellow POWs to do the same. They brought music, laughter, faith and hope to Camp #2 and once again, prisoners began to feel like comrades, their selfishness transformed by selflessness.

Because of the example of two second-mile leaders' hopeful thinking and positive intentions, the prisoners of Camp #2 chose to pursue the possibility of a better future...a future that was made possible because of the immense power of hope to transform even the direst of circumstances into a triumph of the human spirit. 

Leadership That Focuses on the Positive 

Does the transformative experience of the prisoners of Camp #2 in Chungkai, Thailand, sound far-fetched to you? Are you having a hard time believing that just two men, thrust into a horrific situation against their wishes, can have such a profound and positive impact on so many others? Well the fact is research from the budding field of positive psychology confirms that leaders who model hopeful thinking and positive intentions in their interactions with others are better able to increase commitment, satisfaction, engagement, and create a heightened sense of purpose and meaning in the lives of those they are called to lead.

Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions. This relatively new form of science emphasizes people's strengths as a means to achieve a desired outcome and is often described as "...research about what makes life most worth living."

The ultimate goal of positive psychology is to better understand those factors which allow individuals, communities, and even whole societies, to flourish. It seeks to identify and build upon the natural human inclination to remain open to possibilities, to envision a positive future in the face of uncertainty, and to act in ways that links hope with the enactment of leadership. The kind of leadership that is committed to helping others achieve their goals and grow into their fullest potential, no matter the obstacles being faced.

The very kind of leadership emulated by Colonel Edward "Weary" Dunlop and Captain Ernest Gordon.

The act of helping others overcome adversity in order to achieve their goals has been shown to enhance our emotional and physical well-being. In fact, the very real benefit of helping others was highlighted several years ago in a study undertaken by Dr. Stephanie Brown and her colleagues at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Brown followed 423 older couples over a 5-year period as part of a project examining the changing lives of older couples. Brown found that people who reported giving no support to others were more than twice as likely to die during the 5 years of the study as those who helped spouses, friends, relatives, or neighbors.

So as it turns out, helping others pursue the possibility of a better future can indeed foster conditions for the seeds of hope, the expectation of future good, to blossom and grow.

Hope Delivered

James McGregor Burns tells us in his book Transforming Leadership that in every arena of life it is natural for human beings to strive to fulfill needs and desires however meager or simple they might be. He adds, however, that leaders play an especially critical role in ensuring these needs and desires, the hopes of those in their care if you will, are met or exceeded.

It is a leader who is often best positioned, in the words of Burns himself, to elevate people by "...vesting in them a sense of possibility, a belief that changes can be made and that they can make them." And when this occurs, suddenly, "opportunity beckons where none had appeared before, and once seized upon opens another opportunity and another."

In September 1945, after the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II came to a close. There were no friendly troops to open the gates for the survivors of Camp #2. The guards had silently left in defeat in the middle of the night, and the inmates emerged together to the freedom of a new day. After the war, each man who walked through those gates spent the rest of his life knowing that the true story of his survival was not one of individual accomplishment but rather a testimony to the power of hope to transform the darkest of circumstances into the most powerful of possibilities.

Hope delivered by two second-mile leaders committed to doing all they could to bring out the best in those in their care.

Not because they had to, but because they chose to.

Simply because that's what Second-Mile leaders do.