This week I had the opportunity to hear former POW Paul Galanti speak about his experiences during nearly 7 years of confinement in North Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton. It’s hard to imagine a tougher situation to find one’s self in, yet Commander Galanti began by saying that there were positive aspects of his confinement. Although he mentioned some of the extreme hardships, he focused his remarks on those positive experiences.
The men who were confined together, some for as long as 9 years, formed bonds that are strong nearly 40 years after their release. They keep in touch and hold periodic reunions. No one complains if the service isn’t perfect at the reunions–they know what hardship is and it is not having a meal that is less than perfect.
Although Commander Galanti did not reference God or faith in his remarks, it was evident that the men were sustained by faith. They had faith that they would survive the ordeal. They had faith that the government and their loved ones were doing all they could do affect their release. They also had faith in the human will to overcome the darkest of situations.
The most fascinating part was when he described how strong his memory was during the days of solitary confinement. All the lessons from his college courses came back to him in minute details. Later, when he was reunited with a larger group of men, the college-educated among them taught what they had learned to the others. Upon release, former prisoners were awarded up to 120 credit hours for materials taught to them by their fellow captives.
So, what lessons can we learn from Commander Galanti and his imprisonment.
1) The mind needs periods of silence. Commander Galanti was able to recall his college lessons clearly only because he was in solitary confinement and spending long periods in silence. The Bible teaches us to ” Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) We need periods of silence and solitude to reflect on God’s Word and to hear his voice.
2) We can survive whatever life throws our way. Commander Galanti and the other men in the Hanoi Hilton faced hardships that most of us cannot even fathom. Yet, they not only survived but they rose above their circumstances. God promises that He will be with us in all circumstances and “He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) There must have been many times when the prisoners were tempted to give up, but they remained strong and determined to survive their terrible circumstance.
3) Being connected with others is important. For the prisoners of war, communication with each other was their life blood, despite the extreme punishment they endured if caught. Through their clandestine communications they got to know one other and encouraged each other in the darkest times. The Bible teaches Christians that they should “not give up meeting together” but should “encourage one another.” (Hebrews 10:25) We need the support and encouragement of our Christian brothers and sisters.
4) It is important to be optimistic and have hope. The prisoners were confident that their confinement would end one day. They were sure that the end was in sight and would come within six months or a year. They continued to be optimistic as the months stretched to years. They looked forward to the day they would be released and returned to their families. God wants us to have hope, too. He has promised good to us, even though we may be going through a dark period. Jeremiah 29:11 tells us that God has “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
5) Good can come out of terrible circumstances. The men who were held captive in the Hanoi Hilton could have become bitter and angry about their circumstances. But they didn’t. They chose to redeem their time to help one another and to better themselves. Several of the former prisoners, including Senator John McCain, have served in prominent positions in our government. The Bible teaches us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28)
We often face difficult circumstances, but most of us will never face the hardships that compare to those of the American servicemen imprisoned in Vietnam. We should strive to follow their example of rising above our circumstances to look for the good in life and be all that God has intended us to be.
It was an honor and a privilege to hear Commander Gilanti speak. I was uplifted by his message of optimism. Nearly 40 years after his release, he continues to spread his message and improve the lives of others through his work. He serves as an inspiration to all of us.
What hardships are you facing today? Will you strive to rise above your circumstances and face the world with hope and optimism, striving to be the man or woman God created you to be? Will you allow God to give you hope for a better future?