The 10 Truths About Struggle Strength Through Struggle

The 10 Truths About Struggle: Truth 9 of 10

July 15, 2023

we are our brother’s keeper

Taking Care if the Man Next Door

During the Vietnam war, American POWs at the Hanoi Hilton prison camp used a tap code to communicate with each other through the walls of their cells. Among the ranks of these POWs was Naval Commander James Stockdale. Using this code, newly captured prisoners looking for direction would send a message to Stockdale, the senior officer, asking, “Sir, what is our highest duty in this prison?”. Stockdale’s response was always the same, “The Man Next Door”. What Stockdale knew was that the best way for these men to survive was to take care of each other. They held each other up and connected on a level that allowed them to disclose all of the shame and horror they would have been dealing with alone otherwise. This shared experience fostered an environment of connection and disclosure that helped the POWs get through years of captivity together, and the men that returned home did so without any signs or symptoms of PTSD.

“Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” – Brene Brown

POW Charlie Plumb suffered more than 2,000 days of torture during interrogations. One night, while tapping on the cell wall to his neighbor in code, Charlie risked a confession. He said, “If you knew what I did, you probably wouldn’t want to talk to me. And if you did what I did, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to you.” His neighbor asked, “Well what did you do?” Charlie owned the truth. “I broke.” Instead of judgment, his neighbor responded with understanding and forgiveness. He said, “There’s not a man in this prison who was as strong as he wanted to be.”

The truth was, every man in that prison was holding on to the same secret; they’d all done exactly the same thing and were judging themselves harshly for it. Yet once someone disclosed the truth, the men were liberated to share honestly. Disconnection was replaced with a profound connection. Relieved to be fully known and forgiven, the POWs had a new energy to encourage one another’s strength and survival.

“Mental Health is too important to be left to mental health professionals alone.” -Dr. Vikram Patel

In our society, we have outsourced mental health to a small group of people who are incredibly difficult to access and even harder to relate to. I fundamentally believe that in order to solve what is a massive mental health crisis in our world, we need to do what a lot of people have talked about: we need to bring expertise into communities where trust and connection already exist – not try to convince people to go where expertise exists without trust or connection. There is a 40-90% dropout rate among veterans in the mental health world as it currently exists, and many believe the problem is because veterans don’t want to talk to anyone about what they’re going through. That’s just not true. Veterans don’t want to talk to someone they feel they can’t relate to. For a community that sees the worst this world has to offer, bringing that back home and trying to explain your part in it to a scholar in an armchair takes a level of vulnerability that these men and women are not trained to allow. It takes real empathy and understanding to break down those barriers.

As Stockdale and the other POWs of Hanoi Hilton know, trust and connection open the door for disclosure, acceptance, and strength, and it’s difficult to find that trust and connection among people who haven’t shared experiences like yours. We are our brothers and sisters keepers, and our greatest duty is taking care of the Man Next Door.

Be Well. Do Well. Struggle Well.

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