Tag Archives: suffering

Torture, Survival, and Forgiveness in World War II Japan

My mind was elsewhere today. I was down due to a couple simple twists and turns of life, I nevertheless couldn’t help but get pulled into and finish the 500 page Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived 47 days on the Pacific ocean in a raft, 3 years as a prisoner of war, and a lifetime of attempting normalcy in a society that cannot possibility relate to the psychological ordeal he went through.

Surviving One Step at a Time

In some ways, his story is one that has been experienced by millions of soldiers in the past century. His story represents the quiet suffering of millions, each with their own  journey that too often came to a darker ending. I’m not giving away much of the story here, what I said so far is revealed up front. You should read the book, especially in a time when you’re going through something challenging yourself. It will inspire you to learn of the depth of perseverance that rests in each one of us.

As Zamperini says himself, if he knew ahead of time that he would have to go through all that he went through, he would most certainly commit suicide. But when you break it all down day by day, step by step, the mind can bare the deepest solitude and the harshest torture.

Forgiving Evil

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.”

Mutsuhiro_WatanabeFrom reading interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, it often comes through that forgiveness is liberating but is also damn near impossible for most people. In Louie Zamperini’s case the embodiment of evil was one man (picture left): Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka “The Bird”). The Bird derived erotic pleasure from torture. He was weak-willed, jealous, insecure, and psychotic. Perhaps the greatest challenge of Zamperini’s life is the forgiving of this man.

For Zamperini, the answer was in discovering God. I was disappointed at first to see the transformation of this unbreakable will through a religious awakening, but perhaps there is no greater example of the end justifying the means. I wished he would have overcome this final challenge without resorting to a belief in a higher being. It felt like an escape rather than an “overcoming”. But again, in this case, the end justifies the means. This man would not be broken.

A Mother’s Unconditional Love

One other beautiful and morally-wrenching aspect of the story is the love of Mutsuhiro Watanabe’s mother towards her son. Her unwillingness to give up The Bird (a public monster, torturer of hundreds, and one of the biggest Japanese war criminals of WWII) to the authorities given the opportunity, showed the ability of a mother’s love to transcend the bounds of reason and morality. While I found both human beings despicable, there was something very human about that kind of love: the unbreakable bond of family.

The Silver Lining of Pollen Allergies

Every year, starting mid-April and ending in early June, I “suffer” along with 20% of Americans the pollen allergy symptoms of runny nose, itchy eyes/throat, cough, trouble breathing, etc.

Silver liningI like this kind of “suffering” in that it’s not at all “suffering” but rather just annoying discomfort. Over the years of trying to learn and get good at stuff, I’ve figured out a simple fact that improvement requires you to be always choosing the less “comfortable” option. In other words, as many people have said, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That might seem ridiculous or even masochistic, but I think it’s just practical. Every day I step outside my comfort zone in a bunch of ways in work, in sport, in conversation, in thinking, etc.

Feeling like crap for a couple months due to an allergic reaction is yet another chance to deal with discomfort. No big deal.



There is No Medication for Life

“Psychiatric diagnosis and treatment is particularly subject to fads and undue drug company influence because judgments are still based on subjective data that cannot be confirmed or disproved by laboratory tests.” – Allen Frances, Professor, Duke University

The statistics on people who suffer from depression are staggering. For example, according to the National College Health Assessment of college students (carried out by the ACHA):

  • 86.8% of students felt that they were overwhelmed with what they had to do.
  • 86.1% felt like they were exhausted.
  • 61.0% felt very sad.
  • 57.3% felt very lonely.
  • 46.5% of student felt hopeless.
  • 31.3% felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function.
  • 7.1% seriously thought about committing suicide.
  • 5.5% intentionally bruised, burned, cut or physically hurt themselves.
  • 1.2% attempted suicide.

good-doctor-adviceA significant percentage of people in the above survey undoubtedly suffer from a clear-cut chemical imbalance that can be helped by (and only by) medication. By significant, I don’t mean 61%. I mean fractions of 1%. Everything else is the ups and downs of life. Part of being human is learning to ride through that rollercoaster without falling off.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to determine whether a person requires medication, or if a more proactive life-oriented action would be more productive, such as change of diet, lifestyle, career, relationships, etc.

Steven Rinella on Joe Rogan podcast mentioned the counter intuitive notion that when you’re camping and you’re freezing, you don’t want to move, but the right thing to do is to start moving and in so doing you begin to feel great. I think of the state of depression in the same way. It’s a dark place that you get out of by doing stuff you don’t want to do at first.

Some cultures treat people suffering from major depressive disorders as weak whiners that just need to suck it up, while other cultures treat anyone who is sad with a daily dose of medication and multiple therapy sessions a weak. There must be a healthy middle ground erring on the side of prescribing medication only when all else fails.

Fate of the Animals: Mass Extinction

I just came across a powerful painting Fate of the Animals from Franz Marc that he created in the looming terror of World War I:

The painting depicts both the suffering and the cruelty of animals, and that the animal kingdom is not distinct from human civilization. On the back of the painting he wrote “and all being is flaming suffering”. This painting is especially powerful when viewed in the context of the artist’s life work over time. It represents a dark cynical view of nature brought on by the social and philosophical ripples from a world war (in which he lost his life).

Looking online, some people seem to interpret the painting to be about the impact of deforestation on biodiversity. The effect of this is approximately the extinction of 50,000 species of animal, plant, and insect per year.

I see the painting as a reflection of a fleeting pessimistic thought in war: that mass extinction is not a glitch but a fundamental part of nature.

Training With Pollen Allergies

During the months of April, May, and sometimes June, I get to experience my body’s allergic reaction to pollen which include: sneezing, nasal congestion, coughing, itchy watery eyes, runny nose, itchy throat, etc. I have trouble breathing, and because of that I also have trouble sleeping. Not surprisingly that has the added effect of fatigue and irritability.

This all makes training, work, and life in general notably less pleasant.

Whenever I train with someone in judo or jiu jitsu, I find a strange kind of comfort if they visibly are suffering from allergy symptoms as well. It’s like a brotherhood of mild suffering. We nod at each other with understanding as a stream of mucus makes its way out of our noses and down our faces.

It’s one of those things that I would never miss a tournament for, but it definitely takes me out of the competing mindset and can be a barrier to the kind of hard work required to grow as an athlete and academic.

I’m trying to figure out how to deal with it, but for the most part, just sucking it up works best. Every once in a while though, a whiny blog post like this will get out. More than anything it’s just a call to arms for the hay fever brotherhood.

People Killed On and After 9/11

suffering-in-war-iraq-soldier-cryingFirst and foremost, I would like to honor our soldiers: the men and women who have fought and are fighting for this country. Many of them have been killed, and many more have been wounded. From my experience, so many of them are good men, some of the best that our society has to offer (though sadly it is the war itself that often seems to shape the strength of their character).

I am strongly opposed to our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of it leading to more terrorism in the long-term not less, and I will defend that point to anyone willing to have the discussion.

But on this 10 year mark since the attacks of 9/11, I would like to do nothing more than list some statistics on the number of people killed or wounded on and off the battlefield since the tragedy of that day. Also, I add some other casualty statistics for an absurdly horrific context. These numbers are impossible to comprehend, and whatever your view, this information will mean something different, but I ask only that you sit and think about the suffering that fills every crevice of our civilization and how the decisions we make can help alleviate a little bit of it here and there.

  • People killed in 9/11 attacks: 2,819
  • Firefighters, cops, paramedics killed on that day: 366
  • Iraq
    • American soldiers killed in Iraq: 4,474
    • American soldiers wounded in Iraq: 33,143
    • Iraqi civilians killed: 864,531
    • Iraqi civilians seriously injured: 1,556,156
  • Afghanistan
    • American soldiers killed in Afghanistan: 1,140
    • American soldiers wounded in Afghanistan: 3,420
  • Other
    • Women raped in U.S. per year: 90,000
    • Children that die from starvation per year: 3,000,000
    • Killed in WWII: 48,231,700
    • Killed by Black Death (14th century plague): ~100,000,000

“Teach Them Judo, but Train Them like Wrestlers”

Thanks to Jason C. Brown for the quote in the title. It comes from Mel Bruno (a judo pioneer) and the book Drills for Grapplers. Here’s an excerpt.

The excerpt mentions that the goal should be not to “waste any precious training time while on the mat”. This is a good goal for coaches and athletes to live by. I feel like I fail in this often during classes or open mats where the pace is at times not even 1/10th of what it was when I wrestled. I should be able to work up a sweat even when I “go slow” during the technique instruction part of the class if I don’t pause at all and return to the starting position as fast as possible during reps. Drilling a sweep, a guard pass, or a submission for 10-20 reps in a half hour is not enough. I should be able to get in 50-100 reps. There’s 1800 seconds in a half hour, so for 10 seconds per rep that’s 180 reps between my partner and I.

Lately, given how much I train, and how much work I have off the mat, I have been questioning the value of practices that don’t beat the crap out of me in a short amount of time. Different goals require different levels of training, and if I want to beat some of the tougher blue belts out there, while still achieving what I want in my non-training endeavors, I have to constantly search for ways to remove the minutes and hours of training that don’t make me better, faster, stronger, smarter.

I will do judo and bjj my whole life, because I love it. And my goals will certainly evolve with time. But right now I am a competitor, and that means that I don’t want to enjoy practice, I want to “suffer” during practice, and instead enjoy the results of that “suffering”. I remember wrestling practices that made me want to quit wrestling. That’s the goal. To get to that level, and not quit, keep going, for months.

Ultramarathon Man Confessions of an All-Night Runner

Comfort is not Happiness

An excerpt from Dean Karnazes book Ultramarathon Man:

Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. I’ve now come to believe that quite the opposite is the case. Dostoevsky had it right: “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is magic in misery. Just ask any runner.

This gets at the idea that I usually try to explain to friends, acquaintances, girls when they ask why I live my life the way I do. I don’t watch TV, I don’t go to parties / bars, I rarely drink (though when I do, I drink like a champion). Things that most people consider “comfortable” or “relaxing” don’t make me happy. If I’m not challenging myself mentally and physically, it’s not just not worth doing, it’s simply not fun for me. I enjoy relaxing, sleeping not as an activity in itself but as preparation for difficult tasks ahead. Similarly, I seek balance in my life only in as much as it helps me be most consistently productive for long periods of time.

I used to be more apologetic about these values, but then I realized that apologizing for such things is absurd.

Riding the Bench

I can’t quite capture in words what I feel when I have to sit out in training because of an injury. I still show up though, and I think people don’t realize how hard it is to do that.

I would be lying if I called it frustration. Sometimes it’s just plain anger. I don’t want to speak on the subject much more because it’s just ugly. Belive me, you think running intervals and hard sparring is tough… NO. That’s the “tough” that is extremely fun. The hardest challenge is sitting, dry, fat, and tired on the sidelines watching, day after day after day with a dull persistent ache in your shoulder (or whatever other body part has got you out and off the mat).

Anyway, I did about 200 uchikomi that included all the basics. Was sidelined in the second half of practice. I felt like I could definitely do fits, but people seemed to be insistent on throws, so I had to sit out. A bit dissapointed about that. I did one randori session against Joan (40 pounds lighter than me) very lightly going for a few pick ups. It felt pretty good.

Still at the end, I felt very beaten emotionally. It’s really a mild form of suffering that drains all my energy. It was tough to come home, and start up work again over coffee. I usually really enjoy working on Friday night, but tonight even that was tough.