July Top Story

Wisdom of Adversity




(P.O.W. Camp, Far East)


" We have rejoiced for the days in which Thou hast brought us low, the years in which we have seen evil things." —Ps. 89, v. 15. 

In Memory of J.S.







The following pages are an attempt to sum up the lessons learnt during three and a half years in a Japanese prison camp. They were written in hospital in Bangalore, a month after my release, and much that I have set down here is an echo of what I used to preach to the lads in Pakan Baroe, Sumatra, during the last months of our imprisonment.

P.R., S J





"We have rejoiced for the days in which Thou hast brought us low, the years in which we have seen evil things."—Ps. 89, v. 15.

These past three and a half years have been for us a great lesson in Wisdom. The world outside has gone on piling up knowledge useful for destruction : we P.O.W.'s, cut off from that stream of " progress," have been given to drink at the fountain of Wisdom, bitter waters very often, but please God many of us have profited therefrom. God, in His Providence, took us out of the turmoil and restlessness of the battlefield, and put us to school in a hard university; He had lessons to teach us, and the teaching could not be accomplished in a day, or a week, or a year. A long and weary time must pass before He could say : " Go, My children, and by word and example teach men what you have learnt."

Thus it is that for my friends and companions who worked and slept, and ate and sought for food, with me, and sang and joked and endured, and with me waited and prayed, I set down these lessons of our captivity; in memory of those too who have gone home to God, and whose passing was part of our instruction. There are others whom God has taught in other ways, often harder and more perilous, the civilians who suffered at home, and the men who fought; they also, I have no doubt, will find an echo of many things they themselves have learnt, in what follows.





"Riches and poverty give Thou not to me : but grant me only what is needful for my sustenance."

When a man has lost all that makes our life pleasant, nay tolerable, he discovers for the first time, probably, the preciousness of tiny things, and he is filled with wonder and joy by what before he took for granted. As the poet says in the "Songs of a Sentimental Bloke," we are often so intent in groping for the stars that we trample on the daisies at our feet. To turn a tap and fill a glass with dear water; to sit on a chair and eat at a table from a plate; to walk in real shoes, clean and shining, along a smooth, rain-washed street; to switch on a light; to have paper to write on and a book to read .... all these things are precious when one has lost them. To go into one's room and shut the door and be alone! To have solitude and privacy, for the first time for years, after living in sordid overcrowding in one's allotted space—6.5 ft. by 2.5 ft.—ever surrounded by men and noise and movement, and never alone. To be quiet and silent, after continual chatter and din. To enjoy the civilising company of good women, after being beset all day by " men-in-the-raw," and ceaseless profanity. To exchange new ideas, and taste the sweets of intelligent conversation, when, before, all topics had long worn thin, poverty-stricken and exhausted (except for the never-failing topic of food!). To be clean, in body and in clothes; to live in a clean place, and eat off clean plates; in a word, to lay aside the sordidness of life, with its bugs and lice and mud and smells.

Above all, to be free ! Those who have never lost their freedom are apt to sneer cynically at the exaltation of liberty; but the escaped prisoner in " Don Quixote " was wiser when he said, " There is nothing in this world, in my opinion, that can be compared to the regaining of liberty that one has lost," and Cervantes knew, for he had been a prisoner of the Turks. If a man would learn the value of freedom, let him go behind the barbed wire and live for three and a half years under the heel of the conqueror. " When thou wast younger," Christ said to Peter, "thou didst gird thyself and walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old thou shalt stretch forth thy hands and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not." And that is the epitome of captivity: they shall lead thee whither thou wouldst not; you shall be in bondage, kept by a keeper, with no will of your own, herded hither and thither like cattle, beaten with no right to complain or resist, shut in and never let out except under guard; the shadow of that guard with his rifle ever haunting your days and nights .... this is captivity and the loss of freedom.

Yes, freedom is a precious thing. All those things are precious. We had them once, and they meant little to us: we lost them, and by losing them we discovered their worth; God has given them back to us, and if we are wise we will never again take them for granted, but on them build our contentment.

We learnt the secret of contentment not merely by what we lost, but also by what was left to us: real and profound and lasting things that once we took for granted. To have loyal and intimate friends—a treasure above gold or silver; to sing and laugh and make music; to look up at the blue sky and the mountains by day and the silent stars by night; to cool one's body in a stream; to get well after sickness; to have good health when all around one men are sick and dying; to sleep after work, even on the ground; to drink when one is thirsty, even though it be boiled water and clouded; to get hold of an unexpected morsel to eat. ... All these are fundamental and natural blessings, and besides them the pleasures men buy with money are of little account. We had no cars, no wireless sets, nor cinemas, nor strong drink, nor other luxuries, and we did not miss these things. But those fundamental things we shall for the most part always have, and if we are wise, we shall know that having them we are rich. To "covet one's neighbour's goods," to be jealous and embittered because of what one has not, instead of praising God for what one has, is the cause of most of the sorrows in this world.





One has learnt not to expect too much of life, or men. This is not cynicism (the disease of foolish minds !) but a just sense of reality. For this life is not a place of endless progress towards an earthly heaven, but a place beset with troubles and disappointments and failures and sin; endless waiting for things that maybe will never arrive; sorrow and bereavements and loss of friends, and a great deal of inequality and unfairness (at times inevitable) between man and man (besides, thank God, many good things). The best of men are apt to disappoint one at times, above all when they are in authority. All of us are a mixture of good and evil, and after three and a half years living among men stript of this world's goods and of all pretence, one has learnt not to be surprised by any strange and evil conduct, nor to be surprised by, or suspicious of, the amazing goodness of ordinary men. And goodness predominates, beyond stay shadow of doubt. The cynic will deny this, because he fails to understand that evil, because it is a disorder, makes itself felt: while goodness, being "in line" with human nature, passes unnoticed.

One has learnt to be tolerant, both of men and things. Our Father is God, and He is Love, and He knows all things and reads us like an open book; and surely in His eyes, which are Truth, few of us are knaves, but very many are fools.

And since Wisdom means seeing things in their true proportions, and no man who fails in this sense of proportion can possibly perceive disproportion and incongruity, it follows that only a wise man can have a true sense of humour. And the ability to see the humour in things and | happenings, and above all to be able to laugh at oneself, is one of the great lessons we have learnt as P.O.W.'s. One whose soul was open to the lessons of captivity, because he has seen life as it is, is proof against cynicism and can smile at life.





There is an old saw : " Don't worry : it may not happen." P.O.W. camps are the most fertile breeding-ground for rumours (even more than troopships !) because, in general, no one knows anything. And after hearing, and often believing, countless " well-authenticated " stories, one learns that the rarest thing in this world, even among good and sincere men, is to find a reliable witness. There was a man who used to say, " There's only one thing I believe nowadays, and that is the Apostles' Creed; one can be sure of that! " It is part of wisdom to take even the most trustworthy reports with a grain of salt; to be slow to believe most things, whether about events or persons, and particularly disparaging reports about men. Life is a perplexing and complicated affair, and many aspects and circum stances are hidden from us, so that it becomes a perilous venture to pass judgment. .And how many distresses and disturbances a man will escape if he does not for ever have his ear cocked to listen to rumours and "scandals"; in a word, if he minds his own business. And I have learnt that men who are hungry or depressed, or a prey to forebodings or buoyed up with extrava gant hopes, have the most fertile imaginations of all; and what they say or allege or grumble at has frequently no foundation at all: but he will be a clever man who can convince them !





We have learnt, many of us, in a new way, what it means to love one's neighbour. This is one of the great lessons a man can learn in war, and maybe particularly in captivity. " Give to everyone that asketh of thee, and from him who would borrow of thee turn not aside." No man could live in the bad days, unless he had the support of friends. To be alone and friendless in P.O.W. life was indeed a grievous plight, for soul as well as for body; there were few such friendless men. We learnt to give and to share and to lend without stint: exceptions there were, and men were to be found who were grasping and selfish and cunning to steal and cheat, but these were a minority. If you show by your deeds that you love your fellow men, you win love in return, as surely as day follows night. How true it was shown to be to those who dared to make the experiment, that he who casts his bread on the waters shall surely find it again! That Christ's words and promise, " Give and it shall be given to thee," have their fulfilment even in this life. What generosity and unselfishness was to be found in captivity; what patient and dogged care for those who were sick; what loyalty and comradeship and support for those whose circumstances were broken and bad.

We had the opportunity given us by God to love our fellows in action, to help and bolster up those who, like ourselves, were in dire straits; we were all in it together, and this brought out unselfishness and kindness of which we might never have believed ourselves capable, had God in His Providence not sent us to school to learn.





Patience! perhaps the most necessary, and surely the most difficult, virtue in this world. To have to wait, and not give up, and so to preserve intact the citadel of one's soul. P.O.W. life is summed up in this word: WAITING. To have to wait, sustained by no real news, disappointed by the deceitfulness of rumours, on and on, week after week, month after month, for the great day. No one ever doubted that it would arrive; but when ? At times the end seemed infinitely remote, a dream that one told oneself would surely come true ; yes, but meantime we may have to wait one, two, or even five more years, who knows ? You listen: there is no sound, no indication ; the war is very far away from us, lost in the middle of the jungle. What are they doing ? Are they near ? Will they come this year — or next ? And one is tempted to grow weary and give up. But one goes on waiting and will not give up, but makes a joke instead. And the men go out day after day to work, many of them sick; they curse and grumble, but they also joke and hang on and wait for the great day, and so they keep their souls. You may get beaten up, and you hate it and you hate your tormentor, but you have to endure it in silence; and still you are waiting, and you see, when you are less sore, that it is a small thing compared with the great day, and so you come to look on these things philosophically, and do not lose your resolve to hang on, and so you keep your soul, in patience. And in those days, if any man was tempted to whine and pity himself and lose hope, he had but to spend a while among the really sick in the barn that we called hospital, and if he was a man at all, he would resolve to joke and carry on. There is no need to describe that hospital: we know it well. There, lying on boards with no mattresses and only makeshift pillows, and at times no other blanket but a sack, were young men in their prime, wasting away. Some were half paralysed, some there were whose feet or legs were rotting away with hideous ulcers, some so thin that one wondered how a skeleton could still live, others swollen horribly with beri-beri and so heavy that they were unable to move or to change their position, some reduced to a shadow by dysentery, many in constant pain, many unable to sleep. A few lost heart and moaned, and who shall dare to blame them ? But the great majority hung on uncomplaining, knowing full well there was no available treatment to cure them nor good food to build them up ; and in many cases, I am sure, they knew deep down that they would never see Blighty again. But they hung on with a patience that seemed miraculous, waiting for the war to end and medicines to come, and did not moan or complain ; they kept their souls. There was a Scot, a sailor, whom many of us knew well; he had been a fine, well-built, and strong man, and now he lay, his cheeks fallen in and helpless as a baby, an utter wreck; one called to see him and asked, " Well, Jock, how goes it to-day ?" and the answer was always the same, with a twinkle in the eyes, " Fine ! " He was one of many. One who has seen these things and lived among such men and watched them die, can never grumble again.

" In your patience you shall keep your souls."





One learns from such things another lesson, which Service men call being " fireproof," and that is no longer to be afraid of life, whatever it may bring. For when one has seen evil times and lived through them and kept one's soul, one feels that life holds no terrors any more; one has met the harshness of life and conquered it by patience, and with God's grace one can do it again, if need be.

P.O.W. life has its lighter sides, and is not by any means unrelieved gloom and misery — nothing could be further from the truth; but I am writing of the uses of adversity, and so hardships form the basis of my writing. One has to face up always to the chronic uncertainty of things: the war may go on and on, food and conditions get steadily worse; you never know when there may be a sudden pogrom, and all the camp put under collective punishment; you may be lined up with others and systematically beaten; you may yourself fall foul of a guard, and have to stand to attention or kneel before him while he works his will on you. Others may be in trouble, and not you ; but it is little comfort, for you have to witness it all, unable to interfere, and endure the beastly atmosphere such incidents create. There is the recurring fear, often well grounded and realised in fact, that the rations will be cut down still further or arrive in short measure. Your scanty privileges may be stopped, the sick in the hospital may be penalised .... you long for a quiet life, but you rarely get it for long.

And moves ! The only rumour that invariably came true, in some form or other. " There's going to be a move " ; how we hated those words. Even when one was in a bad camp one felt: Better a devil you know .... It frequently meant being separated from one's friends, a grievous thing in P.O.W. life. You have no idea where they are going and maybe you will never see them again. You will have no news of them, and perhaps they will be going through hell, and you'll not know it. And the journey and the whole beastly process of moving: parades and searches and hours waiting in the sun, with the ever-present guards, and the ship or the train, and the digging-in in a new camp; and maybe new guards who, because they are new and do not know you, are suspicious and more than usually troublesome. The whole weary business of settling in, and trying diplomatically to per suade them to allow you certain amenities and conveniences, and they making endless difficulties and seemingly perversely opposed to anything that would make life a bit more tolerable. All this, and the loss of one's friends by death, and the spectacle of sick men being forced to work and so losing what little resistance they have left; and having to go out to work oneself in an endless succession of days, with a rest day or " Yasumay " as rare as an eclipse, in a tropical sun, and always the guard with his rifle, frequently meddlesome and officious, with his beastly " Lakas, lakas ! " which means " Faster, faster." When one has lived so, for three and a half years, and kept one's soul and retained the ability to joke and smile, one feels that life holds no terrors any more. We've managed to survive this: we'll cope with anything now, God helping, and win.





There was on the wall of a camp in Bandoeng a picture painted by a prisoner who later died, and it was the picture of a troopship ploughing its way across the ocean towards the west; and beneath it were the words ROLL ON THAT BOAT. And even in Bandoeng, which was not a bad camp at all, that picture summed up all P.O.W. philosophy. We used to say, in effect: " It doesn't matter what happens, or what the ' Nips' do, or how bad the food may be; it doesn't matter how long we have to wait, if only we get our feet on that boat; even if I have to be carried down the gangway, I don't care, provided I make that boat." That boat was the symbol of a prisoner's ambitions and dreams. And when the really dark days came, and men were dying every day, the words on that picture took on a For one had to reconcile oneself and others to the by-no-means remote possibility that we might never get out alive; that, like so many of our companions, we too might " go over the creek." If so many, why not I ? " I am no better than my brethren." And we had to reconcile ourselves to the loss of some of our best friends, whose bones we left in distant lands, lads in whose company we had hoped to see again, one day, the White Cliffs, and the friendly river Clyde. They had died, and we should sail away and leave them behind, for they would never come home any more.

And it was taught us, if we listened to God, that death is not a final evil: they had not suffered a tragedy; in a truer sense than the painter of that picture had ever imagined, they had " made that boat." They had been set free before any of us from this bleak world, and had gone home for good. They had done, please God, the one thing they came into this world to do, to leave it again in God's friendship, and to disembark on the everlasting shores of their true country. And we, thinking of these things and knowing that we too might die in captivity (or even be killed as a last act of vengeance), came to the final and deepest wisdom of all, that nothing ultimately matters but God, and His grace and His friendship ; that sickness and sorrow and disappointment and loss of friends and home, and death itself, do not matter in the end, if a man has found his way to God, and died in His arms.

"The souls of the just are in the Hand of God. and the torment of death shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, and their departure was taken to be a tragedy; and what we know to be but a journey the foolish looked on as utter destruction: BUT THEY ARE IN PEACE."

" For to those who believe in Thee, O Lord,

Life is not taken away, but changed;

And when this earthly dwelling place has crumbled away,

Thou hast a home everlasting prepared for us in heaven."

Those lads have gone before us, to God; we are following in their path, and one day we too must " go over the creek " ; and to make one's way home to God is the only ambition and dream that really signifies.






Such lessons God taught us in captivity, a deep and true wisdom learnt in a hard and sad and weary school, but the fruit of them is peace.

" If ye know these things, ye shall be blessed if ye do them."


Bangalore, India, October 1945













Published by the Catholic Truth Society, London,

and Printed by Haddock & Baines, Ltd., 12, Princes St., Ipswich

Printed in England 

Sept., 1947


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