My father taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget.
His own father, my grandfather, was a mining engineer and his family lived in the Philippines prior to World War II. After Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941, foreigners were rounded up and incarcerated. Manila’s University of Santo Tomas was made into a prison camp and my father, his mother and his sisters were held there for the duration of the war. His father, an enlisted man, was separated from the family and imprisoned with captured military personnel.
My dad was a teenager at the time. He, like other prisoners, struggled to survive. To keep from starving, he learned to eat his small, daily rations of rice without first removing the carcasses of worms and insects in the bowl (“We needed the protein,” he’d say). But he ate better than most prisoners – he worked as an orderly in the prison hospital and, whenever possible, ate leftover food from plates of hospital patients as he carried trays to the kitchen for cleaning. Though almost six feet tall, when he was finally freed he weighed only 95 pounds, but maintained for the rest of his life that he likely survived those years only because of the scraps of food he snatched from hospital trays.
Life was difficult there by any standards. Numerous prisoners became ill and many died. Anger and bitterness toward their captors abounded. For decades after their eventual release from prison camp, men and women of Santo Tomas (like other prisoners of war) felt a smoldering rancor toward the people who incarcerated them.
My father lost almost everything. His family lost their home. They lost their possessions. And hardest still, they lost their freedom. But he also lost his father. My grandfather did not survive his captivity.
Yet I never heard my dad express any anger or resentment toward his captors or the Japanese people. Just the opposite. He taught me to regard ALL people with respect. He taught me to honor people of all races, nationalities and religions. Maybe he knew that bitterness only kept his wounds open and infected. Maybe he realized that, like a disease, festering resentments can infect others, too. And they can kill.
Nelson Mandela wrote of the day he was released from prison, “As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind, that I would still be in prison.”
My father was freed from two prisons: the bricks and mortar walls that held him during the war, and walls of hatred that could have incarcerated his spirit for years to come. The second prison is as incapacitating as the first. For unless we’re free on the inside, we’re not really free at all.
I’ll not soon forget my father’s powerful lesson.