“In Defeat, Defiance:” Suicide and the Danger of Giving Up Too Soon

When is suicide justified? When is it permissible to give in to the despair and hopelessness that life sends to some of us?

Before you answer, a cautionary tale.

The little girl was born in approximately 1889. She was five years old when her parents died in a home fire. Two older brothers, themselves only in their late teens, were now heads of a household that lacked a house.

The farming community in which they lived in Lithuania (then a part of Russia) offered few vocational prospects and certainly no way for them to support their two younger siblings. A neighboring family made them an offer. In return for the promised work services of the five-year old and the slightly older sister for the next seven years, the head of that family would advance the two boys enough money for passage to the USA. By then, it was hoped, the brothers would have sufficient funds to arrange for the transport overseas of their little sisters.

And thus, this poor little five-year old, already having lost her parents, now separated from the older brothers she loved.

What is seven years to a five-year old?

Eternity.

But the family with which these children lived was good to them, and the brothers made good on their promise. They kept in contact by writing letters to their sisters and, after seven years, had enough money to arrange for a reunion with them in the USA.

The now 12-year-old girl was named Johanna. And it was not too terribly long after, when she was 16, that she met the man who was to be her husband. Her brothers had been supporting her, as well as their own young families. It was time for her to marry, she was told. She had to choose among the suitors available in their small town of LaSalle, Illinois.

The man she chose was 16 years her senior — 32 years old. A coal miner. Farming and coal mining were the chief ways of making a living in that time and place.

Johanna had the first of her five children when she was 18. Life was relatively peaceful and she made the best of the marriage that her brothers had required of her. But, in her 37th year, Johanna began to feel less than her best. At first, she thought little of the fatigue and shortness of breath. Others noticed her pallor. Meanwhile, her appetite diminished and she suffered from diarrhea.

Eventually, the symptoms could not be ignored. The physician diagnosed her as having pernicious anemia, a disturbance in the formation of normal red blood cells.

There was no cure. Her doctor estimated that she might live for one year.

LaSalle, Illinois was a small, largely Lithuanian community. And in that place, at the same time that Johanna received her death sentence, so did another young woman, also a mother.

That person became profoundly depressed and hung herself.

Johanna did not. She did not want to leave her children and her husband in such a fashion. There were things yet to do for her children, messages to impart, care to deliver.

Johanna informed her children that she was going to die before long. She instructed them in what they needed to know in order to take over her household duties and become independent themselves. And, she told them that they would almost certainly have a step-mother eventually, and to welcome her as if she were their own mother.

In 1926, the year of her preparation for death, Johanna Grigalunas could not know that there would be a second World War 13 years in the future and that the country of her birth would be consumed by it. She might have heard of Winston Churchill, however, the man who became Prime Minister of England for most of that conflict. But she would not have been aware that Churchill battled depression himself.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would. Virtually no one thought England would survive. But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater. Most of his words that day are now forgotten. But his job was to rally and inspire a nation, as well as the young men to whom he said:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…”

Just as she could not know of the geo-political events ahead for the world, Johanna did not know that two separate research teams, one in England and one in the USA, were searching for a cure for the disease that afflicted her.

Thus, in 1926, George Richards Minot and William Perry Murphy fed large amounts of beef liver to their pernicious anemia patients, based on the pioneering work of George Whipple, who had demonstrated that the creation of red blood cells in dogs could be enhanced in this way. It was determined that a daily diet rich in liver would prolong the life of those with this disease. All three scientists received the 1934 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology. Eventually, the crucial healing component in the liver, vitamin B 12, became deliverable by injection.

Johanna Grigalunas lived to be 93, more than a half-century beyond the medical death sentence that she received in the 1920s.

Now, you might ask, how is it that I know this story?

Well, I met Johanna Grigalunas, almost blind but full of life,  when she was over 90.

You see, Johanna was my wife’s grandmother.

The above image is of Winston Churchill. The quotation in the title is also from Churchill: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”

Churchill is reported to have suffered from depression off and on throughout his life. He referred to it as his “black dog.” On the subject of suicide, he said the following:

I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.


War Requiem

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War — the cost of war — seems worth consideration on the occasion of Memorial Day 2010. Perhaps you have seen the movie Brothers. It will be in the same spirit, I hope, that I reflect a bit on the cost that any war brings, however necessary it might be. I will do this by quoting two poems and directing you to some wonderful music using poetry as text.

World War I,  “a war to end all wars” according to President Woodrow Wilson, generated lots of verse. British poets, in particular, found the pity in wartime, and as Wilfred Owen wrote, “the poetry is in the pity.” Owen fought and wrote about fighting, as in a letter to his mother just after his arrival in France:

“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.”

The 25 year-old Owen was to die in battle just one week before the armistice on November 11, 1918.

When Benjamin Britten, the pacifist English composer, was commissioned to write music in honor of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (which had been destroyed in World War II), it was Owen’s World War I poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead to which he turned. The piece, for large orchestra (with the addition of a chamber orchestra), three vocal soloists, and chorus, alternately rages against and laments the ravages of wartime.

The War Requiem ends with the Owen poem Strange Meeting, sung at the première by an English tenor and a German baritone, no coincidence as England and Germany fought against each other in both World Wars.

In this poem (excerpted below), the narrator finds himself in the bomb shelter and sleeping quarters below the trenches of the enemy, “down some profound dull tunnel,” as part of a night raid where he encounters dead and dying soldiers. There, he and his enemy recognize their shared human bond:

…Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell

“Strange friend, ” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours, was my life also…
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled…

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

The English language changed because of World War I. Phrases and references to the word “trench” became part of common parlance, as in the phrase “in the trenches” which still refers to working at a hard, grinding task; and even the phrase “trench foot,” which led back to a type of frost bite common in the muddy, cold, wet, and verminous condition of those dark places inhabited by the warriors.

Or, how about “trench fever,” a bacterial infection associated with the lice that bred there. The expression “No Man’s Land,” plays back to the space between the trenches — between you and the enemy trench — which could be a few hundred yards. It was the place belonging to “no man” or side in the conflict, and it was the place where no man could easily survive. So too, when one army decided to launch an attack on the other, they had to go “over the top” of the trench and into hostile fire.

But it was to a much earlier use of the trench in warfare that the poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart would refer.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born on 17 August 1888 in Wales, and fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on the Chersonese peninsula during World War I, not far from the site of the Trojan War.

Gallipoli was a disaster for the British. Shaw-Stewart was on three days leave from the front on the island of Imbros when he wrote the untitled poem that follows. It refers to the Trojan War as represented in The Iliad, so a little background is required to better understand it.

The war began soon after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the wife of one of the Greek kings (Menelaus). The Greeks organized their own expeditionary force and followed Helen to Troy so they might retrieve her.

Many years into the conflict, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, stopped fighting because the leader of the Greeks (Agamemnon) had taken away Achilles’ concubine. Achilles’ rage and his decision not to fight is called “The Wrath of Achilles.” In addition, Achilles knew if he returned to battle he would not survive the war. Despite this, he resumed the fight and turned its tide, with the goddess Athena beside him, both shouting in a trumpet-like, horror-inducing scream to make the Trojans flee.

Achilles and Athena stood at the ditch in front of the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships. Achilles’ head was surrounded by an aura of flame created by the goddess (to which the poet refers in the heart breaking last stanza), so better to terrify the Trojans, who panicked and ran away.

Shaw-Stewart tells his own Illiad-like war story from the standpoint of his temporary leave from fighting:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles ;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese :
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not-
So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Much like Achilles, Patrick Shaw-Stewart survived the Gallipoli campaign, but not the war.

He was 29 at the time of his death.

Fear of Change: the Therapeutic Implications of Japanese Holdouts

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Things change. The question is, do we change with them? Or, do we instead, continue to operate by the same outdated rules of conduct.

I often said to my patients that they seemed to be behaving as if the conditions of their early life still existed. They had long since fashioned solutions to problems that they faced many years ago, and continued to use the same solutions, even though those methods of living didn’t fit with their current life situation. It is as if one were born in Alaska, learned to wear multiple layers of heavy clothing and then moved to the tropics without a change of attire. The warm clothes were helpful up North, but are a disaster down South.

What does this have to do with the “Japanese Holdouts of World War II? The answer is that these men lived by an outdated set of rules with heartbreaking consequences.

If you recall your history lessons, you will remember that the Japanese soldiers of that period were trained according to the principles of Bushido, a feudal fighting code that derived from the period of Samurai warriors. Above all else, weakness was condemned and surrender was disgraceful. Death by one’s own hand was seen as preferable to permitting oneself to be captured, so as to avoid both personal disgrace and family shame.

The Allied approach to the war against these very soldiers in the Pacific was one that involved “island hopping.” The strategy passed over certain islands, both to save men and ensure that the Allies would be able  to capture those islands that were of the greatest strategic value. When the Japanese surrender came in 1945, numerous Japanese troops found themselves stranded on out-of-the-way Pacific islands, cut-off from their command, and without the capacity for communicating back home. These men neither knew the war was over nor could imagine that any honorable soldier, let alone their entire nation, would surrender. Some were in small groups who gradually died from disease or starvation; others were, at least eventually, alone.

While many never surrendered and died still waiting for reinforcements that never came, it was not uncommon in the late 1940s and 1950s to read news accounts of isolated Japanese combatants giving themselves up. The photo at the top of this page is of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, who finally surrendered in 1974, and would not do so until his former commanding officer, by then a bookseller, personally ordered him to lay down his arms.  At that point, World War II had been over for nearly 30 years.

Thirty years. Yes, 30 years dedicated to a war that was over and a life of desperation that was no longer required.

But how many years, if any, have you given up to a thread-bare, bankrupt strategy of living that has long since outlived its usefulness?. And, more to the point, how many more will you endure? When will you realize that your “solution” has now become the problem?

In my psychotherapy practice I saw numerous variations on this theme. People who were abused or neglected  or criticized as children and who continued to live in terror of disappointing others. Those who found substance abuse the only available way of treating the depression or anxiety they experienced when they were young, and who continued to do so. People who avoided challenges because they were scared of failure, having failed many times in the past. Individuals who wore a chip on their shoulder, forever sensitive to insults and injuries that reminded them of long ago attacks, but now were only injurious in their imagination. And those poor souls who expected rejection because of past rejection. Like the Japanese holdouts, the years pass but the fear doesn’t, and the possibility of satisfying relationships and happiness slips away.

If you still are responding to the present as if it were the past, with solutions that solve little (even if they were once necessary), then it is time to change your life. The barricade of your life’s defenses might be protecting you only from the phantom of an enemy who lives within you, not on the other side of the fortification.

A good therapist is likely to be able to help you develop a new way of living, one more appropriate to the world as it is, not the world as it was; to set aside and heal old wounds.

Is it time?

What is the continuation of your old way of living costing you?

The war, your personal war, might just be over and you don’t know it.

Two Americas, But Not the Two You Think

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Before his marital infidelity discredited him, John Edwards spoke eloquently about “two Americas.” He talked of differences between the health care, financial stability, education and housing available to these two different parts of our society.

But there is another American divide that has created two other Americas: on one side the fighting men and women in our armed services (along with their families) and the rest of us on the other.

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, look no further than the differences that have been institutionalized by the volunteer army. However much good was achieved by the decision to eliminate the military draft, surely the absence of shared sacrifice has contributed to the ease with which we take opposing positions to our fellow-citizens on matters that have to do with national security.

No longer does the USA pull together for the long haul in the way that was possible during World War II. In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing that their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because the people of this country (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods and the sheer terror of having their loved ones abroad and in harm’s way.

If a war is worth fighting, it should not have merit only because the children of other people are fighting it, even if they do so voluntarily.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. This book is about the officers who inform families that they have lost a loved one, and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

The book takes no sides on the question of the War in Iraq. Yes, you will hear occasional comments in support or opposition, but you will not think as much about these policy questions as about the human beings you meet along the way. Several families will become your acquaintances as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will also get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine tasked to inform the families of their loss, the man who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed that they shall leave no comrade behind. And, consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on their door that changes everything, that creates a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. But I can say that it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not work to make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured that you will think about war, any war, differently after reading or listening to Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one that fights the wars and sends its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within that group, then there is nothing contained in this book that you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

If you have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your loved ones. It is thanks to the willingness of the few to serve on behalf of the many that the rest of us are safe.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, too detached from something of desperate importance: the work done far from home in our name by the children of other people. And too removed and distant from how these “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

We need to remember that, for these families, the human cost never fully goes away.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk by them unaware every day…

Kafka said that “a book is like an ax, to break the frozen sea within us.”

This is such a book.

The maps above are the work of Allstrak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jerry, Raya, and the Shadow

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Do you ever find yourself thinking of an old childhood friend? Someone you haven’t seen in an age?

My friend Jerry lived across the alley from me in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you probably don’t know much about alleys. I met some of my best friends there, playing lots of softball in the narrow confines of cement bordered by an endless row of garages on each side. I learned to climb roofs to retrieve softballs that landed there and (like my friends) occasionally beat a hasty retreat when a line-drive shattered a garage door window.

Jerry wasn’t much of a softball player. He had dark brown hair combed straight back, handsome features, and a smile of devastating charm. His eyes could be impish and alive as he stood there in the shadow of one of the garages on a summer evening taking a drag on his cigarette, especially when he talked about something slightly naughty for a 12-year-old, like sex.

Or they could be sad and mournful, as if he knew something that none of the rest of us knew about.

His parents were Holocaust survivors.

He lived with them on the first floor of a two-flat building. He had a sister, I seem to recall. His aunt and her husband owned the upstairs flat. Jerry’s mom, a sweet woman who had likely once been very pretty, was always kind to me; but worn out, faded in appearance, weary, looking older than my mom, although they were probably about the same age.

Jerry’s father was short, with a bristly, full head of salt-and-pepper, almost angry hair. He was never mean, but there was a grim severity about him, a desperate seriousness. I never once saw him smile.

Jerry told me that his dad disapproved of him. Jerry’s relatively poor school work was the reason. I could never understand why Jerry didn’t do better at his studies. He could be witty and clever — he was certainly bright enough. But, he didn’t have much interest or heart for it, seemed not to try very hard, even was held back by a half-year, winding up in my eighth grade class despite the fact that he should already have been in high school.

I remember one conversation. Something about money. Jerry told me that his parents were pretty careful with their money and didn’t want him to spend it unwisely. But, he said, there was one exception. “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.” Peculiar, I thought. Nice of them, I guessed. But, it stuck there in my mind, not fitting somehow, an inconsistency that I couldn’t fully understand.

My friendship with Jerry dropped away in high school. He continued to struggle in school and we both gravitated toward other people. I don’t think he graduated, but I heard that he eventually got his GED (high school equivalency degree).

When I was in college or graduate school I ran into him on the bus. We had one of those semi-awkward reunions, catching up on our lives, not having much more than that to say. Jerry was then a hair dresser. And, I suspect, a good one, since he always had an artistic flair.

I met Raya in college. She was tall and very pretty, with wavy, long brown hair. Her form was willowy, and she moved with the grace of a dancer, as if trying, in her fluid motion, not to disturb the air. Raya spoke with an accented English, having come to this country with her parents from Israel only a few years before.

It was hard not to find Raya attractive, but she was very quiet and conversations were always a struggle. I find that curious in looking back, because you’d think that I would have asked her tons of questions about her life in Israel and how it was different than Chicago.

Maybe I did.

Nonetheless, Raya and I went on two or three dates. I remember the first one, driving to her home to pick her up and meeting her father there. He reminded me of Jerry’s dad: a very strong and dark presence, grave, serious, not to be trifled with.

At the time, I probably wrote that off to the protective relationship between a father and a daughter. As I said at my youngest’s wedding, the job of being a father to a beautiful daughter is not an easy one. You spend a lot of time thinking unkind thoughts about little boys, wondering what plots they might be hatching to ensnare your female child!

In any case, Raya and I went to a movie that evening, the highly rated The Pawn Broker starring Rod Steiger. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the movie on everyone’s lips. I don’t think Raya knew much about it either.

It turned out to concern a man, played by Steiger, who lost his family in the Holocaust, later becoming a pawn broker in Spanish Harlem; and especially about his relationship with a young Hispanic man who works for him, and a social worker who attempts to draw him back into the world from the dark, shadowy place into which he retreated after his wartime experience.

It was not long into the film before I noticed that Raya was quietly weeping. I asked her if she was OK, but she tried to minimize her upset. And when the movie was over, she told me that her parents were concentration camp survivors.

Now, you’d think I would have been more careful about this, about what exactly the movie was about and who exactly was this pretty girl underneath her surface beauty and grace.

But, to my discredit, I hadn’t been.

Apparently, Raya didn’t hold this against me particularly, because we went out one or two other times. But, as I said, it was difficult to generate conversation and we parted in a not-unfriendly way. Perhaps there were things too deep for words, things that one simply couldn’t talk about on a “date” with someone you hardly knew.

It might be of interest to you to know that the word “Holocaust” was not immediately applied to the genocidal murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, if you watch the old 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, you will see in the scene just following Cary Grant’s narrow escape in a corn field, a prominent newspaper headline using the word “holocaust” to describe the explosion of an oil truck when it collided with a low flying airplane.

These days, that word is rarely applied to anything except the European Jewish experience of the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, April 12, 2010, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Back in the time that I was in high school, the 1960s, virtually no reference was made to these events. One simply did not talk about them in any great depth and it was not the subject of special study or attention in class. In fact, this failure to mention it was particularly true of the homes of most of the survivors. But, the children of these unfortunate people, mostly about my age, came to know enough about what happened to their parents to give them special consideration, and to try to protect them and compensate them for what they lost in the European tragedy.

It was a heavy burden for the generation just behind the survivors, one written about for the first time by Helen Epstein in the classic book, Children of the Holocaust. For everyone else among Jewish children of the time, the shadow of the event was there, even without a name. Simply the idea that but for the accident of time and  place — had you been born just a few years earlier in Europe — you would have almost certainly been a human target in a deadly game, along with everyone else you loved.

Long after my relationships with Jerry and Raya ended, I was reading a book by a French Holocaust survivor in which he described his return to Paris. It was within a few months of his homecoming. The man was on the subway, close to two teenage girls who were talking together. He heard one say how hungry she was; “I’m starving,” she said.

The survivor knew the words, understood the meaning, and thought to himself, “I have no idea what she is talking about.” Put another way, this man knew “starvation” to mean the severe malnourishment that he experienced in a concentration camp, not the colloquial, everyday meaning that the girl was giving it, an expression he might have used himself in the time before the war.

When I read that passage, I flashed back to my conversation with Jerry, the one when he told me a bit about his parents’ exception to their usual cautiousness with money: “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.”

And then, I understood just a little bit, what they must have meant.

I wonder where they are now, Jerry and Raya.

I wonder who they are now.

It would be nice to know.

The image above is Russian Stamp No. 583 created by Russian Post, Beylin V., painter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Moral Choices

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It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.

Experience and Memory

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The last Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, is dead. He passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington on February 18, 2009. Frank Buckles, also 109, remains the sole surviving American veteran of the “War to End All Wars,” according to The New York Times.

With Mr. Buckles inevitable departure, we will all lose contact with what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918 within what is called “living memory;” the contact that can only come from the direct experience of the world-changing event that shaped the lives of many of our grandparents or great grandparents. Our only available sources of information will then be in the form of books, stories that the survivors told to those still alive, old silent movie film of some of the battle action, recorded reminiscences, journals a few of the combatants kept, accounts from war correspondents, and the like.

All of which leads me to think about memory and experience. And why understanding them is important.

Experience takes a number of forms and, when the experience is past, it becomes a memory. Simple enough on the surface, but not simple at all.

First, there is the “living” of the thing, actually participating in an event. In the case of Frank Buckles, that meant driving an American Army ambulance in France during the conflict itself, witnessing the carnage, hearing wounded men cry for their mothers, making and losing friends, feeling the “pee-in-your-pants” terror of it, getting shot at, carrying a gas mask or perhaps being exposed to poison gas, ministering to the wounded, jumping into fox holes—eating, drinking, and sleeping it all. But once Mr. Buckles returned home from the front, his time there had become a memory and was now different from the actual, in-the-moment intensity of the lived-experience, an intensity that nothing in his long life after the war could match.

At another level, more removed, there are the spectators to events. We all achieve the status of “watchers” when we attend a sporting competition. We see and hear a good deal of what is happening, even if we don’t ourselves play in the game.

At even more distance from the event are those who watch at home. They will miss some of the “atmosphere” of “being there” unlike those of us independent of TV cameras, who will see the event naturally, in the way it unfolds in real-life (without the mediation of a cameraman or the interruption of commercials). And the “at-home” audience will not experience the same roar of the crowd, the heat of sun on skin, the faces of the beer vendors, and the thousands of movements and sounds of the athletes and spectators that the cameras and microphones do not record.

More distant still from the actual experience is a radio broadcast, where one’s imagination and memory of events like the one being reported tend to fill in the blanks where no visual representation of the event is present. At a further remove might be a newspaper account of the game or a friend’s description of what happened from his memory of being there himself.

Experience is one thing, memory another. Memory can only approximate the event itself and can alter or fade with the passage of time. Remember your first kiss—all the thousands of sensations happening all at once—the rush of being alive, the smell of perfume or aftershave or the person’s natural scent, the touch and texture of skin, the moistness and softness of lips, your own heartbeat, body against body—firmness, roundness—the moment before and after, the placement of your hands, the color of your partner’s eyes and their expression in those same moments? Now, as you think about it, however good your memory, I think you will admit that remembering is not the same as living it.

At least in the case of memories of things like your first kiss, you have an advantage over others’ understanding of that experience because it was yours and not theirs. It becomes a good deal harder to relate to the experience of others, especially if they have lived through something wholly unlike what has happened in your own life. The most dramatic examples I can think of come from those who have experienced severe trauma. Take the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Magda F., from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies quoted by Lawrence Langer in Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory, as relatives implored her to talk about her experience:

And I looked at them and I said: “I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something now. If somebody would tell me this story, I would say ‘She’s lying, or he’s lying.’ Because this can’t be true. And maybe you’re gonna feel the same way. That your sister’s lying here, because this could not happen. Because to understand us, somebody has to go through with it. Because nobody, but nobody fully understands us. You can’t. No (matter) how much sympathy you give me when I’m talking here, or you understand…you’re trying to understand me, I know, but I don’t think you could, I don’t think so.”

And I said this to them. Hoping (they) should never be able to understand, because to understand, you have to go through with it, and I hope nobody in the world comes to this again, (so) they should understand us. And this was the honest truth, because nobody, nobody, nobody…

Those of us who are the children of Americans who survived the Great Depression got a little bit of this kind of understanding, I think, in late 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff and looked like it was going to continue falling and possibly repeat the Great Depression. We’d heard the stories our parents or grandparents told, we’d read the history books describing the period between the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, but we hadn’t lived in a period anything like that. Now, we were getting a taste of it, even if, for most of us, it was only a taste and not the whole meal. Now we know more, and better, what it was like for our elders (and what it is like for our fellow Americans who are losing their homes along with their livelihoods right now).

Sergiu Celibidache, the Roumanian symphony conductor, put very well the difference between direct experience and some form of pale attempt to duplicate that experience in a different time and place. Celibidache believed that it was impossible to accurately render the transcendant impact of musical performance except in a concert hall. He thought that recordings were a fraud, because they attenuated this experience and altered it, didn’t duplicate the physical and aural sensations present sitting in the hall, listening to the full dynamic range of sound as that sound was being made in the same acoustical environment as the musicians themselves. Therefore, Celibidache refused to make recordings for most of his career. And, in the days before anyone ever considered the possibility of experiments in virtual reality, he said that “listening to a recording is like making love to a picture of Bridget Bardot,” the gorgeous French model and actress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Adlai Stevenson II, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, captured the impossibility of fully communicating an experience he’d had to those who had not yet had that experience in a 1954 speech (made when he was 54) to the senior class of his alma mater, Princeton University:

“…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions—a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love—the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men…”

So, put another way, for example, no one who hasn’t been in love can know what love is; no one who hasn’t experienced discrimination or fought against it can really understand it fully; no one who has only watched a travelogue about the countryside really knows what it is like to be in the country; just as those who observe from the sidelines and never have played the game cannot completely grasp the clichéd expression about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

No, life is about the living of it, not the reading about it or the watching  of it. And, so too, it is about knowing that you don’t know fully about the experiences you haven’t had. It is about knowing that you can only approximate a real and complete appreciation of another’s life; knowing that some of those things the other has witnessed or lived through are frankly unknowable without their experience; knowing that the depths of human personality, emotion, and incident are infinitely great and that one can only approach the deepest point in knowledge and understanding even as we reflect on our own live’s through the lens of memory; and knowing that the death of the last veteran of World War I robs us all of some element of connection to history and, therefore, to the forces that shaped us, our parents, and their parents.

Life is infinitely humbling, fascinating, terrifying, and touching. I imagine one could live a dozen lives, some in one gender, some another; some straight, some gay; some black, some white, some yellow; some married, some single; some in this time, some in the future and the past; some here, some there; and still not achieve the richness that is possible.

But, of course, we only get one, so far as anyone knows. That means we must get on with things.

The day is short and there is much to do.

The photo above is of Frank Buckles with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on March 6, 2008 by Cherie A. Thurlby of soldiersmediacenter, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Performers, Priests, and Other Intermediaries

Do you remember your childhood friend, the one who knew the girl you fancied, the one who was the intermediary between you and “your heart’s desire,” who let you know if she was equally fond of you, and who passed messages and notes between the two of you? And do you remember when you asked one parent to “run interference” with the other, to shield you from the blow or scolding or grounding that you were afraid you would receive if your defender couldn’t soften the heart of the other? These were probably your first experiences with the role of an intermediary.

Putting these things in the terms of childhood memory will, I hope, help you to recall just how important that mediator was, how much you counted on her or him to put things right for you, how much dependency was involved, and how grateful you were if she was able to do the job of advocating for you efficiently and well.

As adults we still use these kinds of mediators, intermediaries, or advocates. Lawyers “make our case,” accountants talk to the IRS on our behalf, reference persons write letters or recommendations to potential employers or universities, agents negotiate salaries for us, and a marital therapist tries to help two people repair their relationship.

But the intermediaries whom we most esteem, I think, are those that perform a public form of intercession. I am speaking of musicians, actors, and clergymen.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with musicians. They take the printed note on the page of music paper and give it life—sing it, play it, form it in the way that they understand the notation. The players interpret the music. It is said that they “recreate” it, but truly, it does not exist except as an abstraction until they begin to perform it; we do not hear it until they begin to “make” the music. They are the intermediaries between the composer (who might be long dead) and us.

So too, actors and actresses. They give life to the playwright’s or script writer’s words. These players shape the words, give them emphasis and color, drama and intensity. And they are the carriers of the playwright’s meaning, his advocates and his intermediaries in the communication he hopes to bring to us, the audience.

Clergymen and clergywomen serve much the same purpose, only with religious texts. If you believe that they serve a higher being, then you also believe that they mediate between God and man. Their sermons, if eloquently delivered, are no less moving than the sounds of stirring music or the voice that an actor gives to Shakespeare’s lines.

We esteem these mediators, in part, because (at their best) they reveal to us a higher, loftier, more intense and creatively imagined way of being; they move us to tears or to excitement or to hope; they quicken life, stimulate thought, open our hearts, teach us, and, if we are ready, change us.

Given the effect that they have on us, these mediators receive our appreciation and, sometimes, adulation. Indeed, because the composer or playwright or screen writer has given over the task of performance to these people (while he is in the shadows, even if alive), we can lose sight of the author of the creative work being presented to us on stage. And, so too, the recreative artist (the actor or musician) can get a bit too carried away with his own self-importance. Indeed, it is rare for the great conductors, singers, actors, violinists, and actresses of the world not to be at least a little full of themselves.

One who was not, however, is the subject of an excellent new biography: Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini by Thomas Saler.

Giulini was an Italian symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1914 to 2005. His humility in the face of the geniuses he served, that is, the great composers, would have been for nothing if not for his own talent in giving life to their music. Giulini felt that his role was a small one, as the servant of these great men, as the mediator of something much bigger, more important, and more lasting than himself. Giulini was a man both great and good, an extraordinarily rare combination. I had the good luck to hear him perform dozens of times and to interview him once (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for Mr. Saler’s book).

Giulini took his role as the link between composer and listener very seriously; indeed, the responsibility to the composer, to do his art justice, was a weighty one to this enormously conscientious man. Giulini gave the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome from fascist control in 1944 during World War II. Soon after, he was asked to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, pieces he admired but did not feel ready to perform. Pressured to do so in a concert that was well received, Giulini nonetheless felt he had let down both the composer and the audience by playing these pieces before he was convinced of how to best recreate every note. It was 22 years before he finally felt that conviction and again conducted any work of Bach.

As quoted in the biography, Robert Marsh said of the conductor, “He is one of the most completely civilized men I have ever met, one who can command without every raising his voice, who wins and holds your loyalty by the nobility of his character. If music is to lead us to the fullest awareness of humanistic values, men such as Giulini will be the models we must follow.”

Intermediaries. They mean a great deal to us.

As you can tell, Giulini did to me.

Who are You to Judge?

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Judgment is problematic. We need it, but not too much of it. Sort of like food.

While I will say more of a secular nature, the most famous comment on judgment comes from the New Testament — the Christian Bible — and is attributed to Jesus:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The point here is about the potential hypocrisy: for us to judge others by a standard that is harsher than the one that we apply to ourselves. It is akin to the famous late addition to the Christian Bible about Jesus turning away the men who were about to stone a woman who had committed adultery, with the comment “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He later advises her to go and “sin no more.”

We judge lots of things. We need to judge the accused in the court room, lest wrong-doers do wrong with impunity. We judge ourselves and, one hopes that it improves our future behavior and helps us make good decisions.

We judge for self-protection, too; to comfort ourselves with the belief that the misfortune of others is due to their bad decision-making. By implication, if we make better decisions — display better judgment than they did — fate will be kinder to us. If we are careful, thoughtful, smart, do our homework, live by the Golden Rule, and so forth, good things will happen to us and we will avoid bad things.

This view seems to look at misfortune as some sort of anomaly, something that is outside of the normal course of events when, of course, it is not. All sorts of bad things happen to the innocent or unlucky. This is a troubling thought and our negative judgment of others — our attempt to make sense of their troubled lives or bad luck — makes it easier to sleep at night.

I’m not trying to justify all poor decisions here, many of which surely lead to disaster. Rather, it’s simply that not every bad thing is the result of some fatal flaw in the nature or conduct of a man or woman. Sometimes you can do everything right and have a bad result. Sometimes things just happen.

Judgment serves, too, as an attempt to guarantee immortality. Since most people see death as the worst possible outcome in any life, it shouldn’t be surprising that harsh judgment is often characteristic of religious fundamentalism. For the “by-the-book” parishioner, following all the rules of his or her particular religion guarantees a heavenly reward. And, for those who violate the doctrine, the faithful believe that there will usually be a trip to a darker place.

Judgment in this instance provides some comfort that death is not final; and perhaps the self-satisfaction of believing that in visiting judgment on the unfaithful, one is only trying to move them onto a path that will lead to heaven. For some of the religious fundamentalists I’m sure that it is; for others, however, it might only be a justification for venting angry condemnation of those who are different and who do not believe what the self-righteous might wish they did believe.

Judgment is often made by those who have no experience of the situation or circumstance in which the “judged” behavior occurred. To take a current example, consider Tiger Woods (or some other celebrity) reported to be unfaithful to his spouse. I am certainly not here to apologize for, or attempt to excuse Tiger Woods’ behavior. But I would say this: I suspect that non-celebrities have no idea of the temptation available to a man or woman in Woods’ position nearly every day of his life. And, as Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything but temptation.”

But, let us move away from the always controversial area of sex to give this idea a different look. I once asked the great Italian symphony conductor Carlo Maria Giulini about his judgment of the behavior of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler chose to stay in Germany during the period of the Third Reich, although he was not a Nazi. While he was helpful to some Jewish musicians, he also was used (and allowed himself to be used) as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Giulini , who began his career as an orchestral violist, had played under Furtwängler in Italy before the war. Moreover, during World War II, Giulini, never a fascist, had defected from the Italian army into which he had been conscripted and went into hiding for nine months, during which time he was a “wanted” man. But when I asked him about the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and to allow himself to be a representative of a corrupt regime, Giulini was hesitant to judge:

It’s very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It’s difficult for you in America to understand the problems we had in Europe. It’s difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history), that is absolutely impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. That last thing I should do is to express my opinion on this point. I had my personal political opinion, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist (laughs), and at the moment that I had to make a strong decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

We judge ourselves and others, to the extent that we do it, with the perfection of 20/20 vision that only comes in looking back, in hindsight, at what was done. We sometimes say “he should have known better than to” (make that business deal, marry that person, visit that neighborhood, smoke, drink — take your pick). Well, it is sometimes true. And, after all, I’m in the business of trying to help people to make better judgments. But mostly, that experience tells me that all people make mistakes and, assuming that they don’t mean to injure others, they mostly pay for those mistakes with their own blood, tears, and sweat.

As much as I recognize that judgment has its place, as a therapist, I try to meet people on their own terms, not coming from “on high” as a stern taskmaster or a fundamentalist-style religious figure “laying down the law.”

No, if you want that, you shouldn’t consult me. I am not here to condemn, although I don’t shy away from identifying right from wrong when it can be clearly seen.

Instead, I am here to help, to understand, to provide a bit of solace, to be a guide to a better way, if I can.

The gavel at the top of this essay is the work of Glentamara and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Classic Movies: Three to Treasure

Ronald Colman

I don’t go to a great many films and, perhaps unfortunately, don’t rent many either. But this wasn’t always he case. As a result, I can recommend three very old films that continue to move me every time I watch them:

1. The Best Years of Our Lives

On most every list of the 100 best films ever made. A 1946 film starring Myrna Loy, Frederick March, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Theresa Wright, Harold Russell, and Roman Bohnen, among others. The film won seven Academy Awards. It tells the story of three WWII vets returning to home to their small town. One, a banker turned infantryman. Another, a “soda jerk” (someone who worked behind the counter making milk shakes and the like) turned bombardier; and the third man, a star high school quarterback engaged (literally) to the girl next door, turned into a sailor who did not quite go down with his ship, but lost both his arms in surviving.

The movie is touching and heart breaking in its effort to present a frank appraisal (for the time) of the costs of even a just war, as these three good men struggle to readjust to civilian life.

The newly returned banker (Frederick March) drinks too much and discovers that dollars and cents don’t have the same meaning to him as they did before he fought beside less well-to-do men of courage, loyalty, and integrity.

Dana Andrews, the Air Force captain, finds that the beautiful wife he impulsively married isn’t a good match for him now that he suffers from “combat fatigue,” a disorder that would be labeled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today. Moreover, he must contend with the fact that the heroism that he displayed during the war doesn’t guarantee him a good job after his service has ended.

Harold Russell, a non-actor, gives an earnest performance as someone who cannot bear to be a burden on others now that he has primitive prosthetic arms, and does his best to discourage the young woman who still loves him, because he believes that her feelings are based only on pity.

For me, there are many extraordinarily touching moments in this film. I will mention only two: the moment that Frederick March first reunites with his wife after years away from home overseas, and Roman Bohnen’s understated, but oh so sensitive reading of the citation that his son (the Air Force Captain played by Dana Andrews) received for his heroism. That brief scene says all one need ever know about a parent’s pride in his child.

The film is long and slow-moving by contemporary standards, but the moderate pace allows more character development than usual. If you have the patience you will be rewarded.

2. The Prisoner of Zenda

First, a disclaimer. I love Ronald Colman. He was a now largely forgotten matinée idol of the ’30s and ’40s, as elegant, suave, and handsome (but in a more refined, cultured way) than the male stars of today. I forgive him the fact that he was not a great actor. But then Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Alan Ladd, all contemporaries, were much, much worse.

Colman stars as a British citizen on holiday in a fictitious Eastern European country, who accidentally stumbles upon a cousin who is the crown prince. The catch? They look like identical twins (Colman played both parts, of course). And when the Prince’s evil step-brother Michael poisons his favored sibling so that he can assume the throne himself, the British cousin is asked to substitute for the king-to-be at the Coronation, until the real prince can recover and take the throne.

Things don’t go as planned and the charade continues on, long enough, in fact, for our British cousin to fall in love with the woman who is betrothed to the new king. This is an old style 1937 swash-buckler starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Raymond Massey, David Niven, Madeleine Carroll, C. Aubrey Smith, and Mary Astor (of Maltese Falcon fame). And, it too will touch you, as its ending is bitter-sweet.

The film is based on the popular novel of the same name by Anthony Hope. If you’ve already seen the movie or read the book, know that Hope wrote a less impressive sequel called Rupert of Hentzau (named after the character played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr).

Do avoid the much inferior color remake with Stewart Grainger and Deborah Kerr, as well as the later comedy adaptation starring Peter Sellers.

3. Lost Horizon

Another 1937 classic, this one based on a James Hilton novel, again starring Ronald Colman, along with Sam Jaffe and a very young Jane Wyatt (best known for her role as the mom in the ’50s TV series Father Knows Best, which also featured Robert Young).

This time Colman plays a disillusioned British diplomat who is kidnapped along with his brother and several recently rescued Brits and Americans, to be taken to a place called Shangri-La, a community situated in a temperate valley within the otherwise bitter cold of the Himalayan Mountains. Colman discovers something unbelievable there, a utopian community where people are not only tolerant and understanding, but are rumored to live unusually long lives.

Remember that this film was made on the verge of World War II and the character played by Colman reflects the contemporary sense of discouragement about continents on a collision-course, as well as a “this is  too good to be true” response to his new home. Of course, there would be no story unless Colman’s adjustment was less than perfect. He falls in love with Jane Wyatt, but also feels duty-bound to get on with the work in the outside world that is required by his career in His Majesty’s diplomatic corps.

To further complicate matters, Colman’s younger brother (played by John Howard) has fallen in love too, but with a woman who can’t wait to leave Shangri-La. What will Colman do? And if he leaves, will he ever return to take over administration of the community, as this was the reason he was kidnapped in the first place?

The movie is interesting for another reason. Some of the footage in the original version of this film was cut because it was thought that there was too much anti-war and women’s liberation sentiment. Indeed, the character played by Jane Wyatt is an astonishingly independent and intelligent female for her time, when most actresses where docile and deferential by today’s standards. Unfortunately, the seven minutes of the cut film were never recovered, but the sound track of that portion of the movie remained in tact. Thus, the videocassette and DVD releases have used “still” and publicity photos, cleverly manipulated to simulate some action, to replace the minutes where no movie film remains. But be careful not to confuse this classic with a 1970s remake in the form of a musical.

In any case, the feature remains a worthy one. Its portrayal of a better world, not on heaven, but heaven on earth, is attractive. To paraphrase one of the lines in the movie, let us hope that we all find our own Shangri-La.

The photo above is of Ronald Colman, sourced from http://www.meredy.com/