Recently, I participated in training with John Evans and Karen Jooste on leading others in writing for health. One of the approaches we learned is expressive writing, as developed and researched by James Pennebaker. The Pennebaker paradigm has been shown, through 3 decades of research, to help people integrate traumatic or very difficult experiences, make sense of them and move forward in their lives. It’s an amazing resource and one I’m looking forward to sharing with others.

This past Sunday This American Life had an episode about a group of teachers and children that survived their internment in a Japanese camp during WW II.

As you no doubt  know,  the US did something very similar after Pearl Harbor;  the internment of Japanese-American citizens. The politics and policies of racism and fear, a very important subject, isn’t my topic today, though.

My topic is hope,  and how it can sometimes can be kept alive in the most difficult of circumstances.

Last Sunday’s This American Life podcast included the story of children and their teachers held with other civilians at the Weihsien Camp. The podcast says they were there for 4 years; this source says people were imprisoned for 2 years. Both sources agree that conditions were tough: too little food, barbed wire, electrified fences, bayonet drills, armed guards, bayonet drills… this place was not one where you’d expect children to thrive.

According to 82-year old Mary Previty (sp?), who was 12 at the time, the children felt safe and cared for. They came through what they realized was a bad situation in pretty good shape. How? It seems despite their own fears, the teachers were able to provide what the children in their charge needed:

  • Structure
  • Meaning
  • Safety
  • Play

It wasn’t fun, Mary recalls, but she says that somehow the adults preserved their childhood.

I don’t know the full story about this camp. Maybe some of the children were harmed physically or emotionally. Perhaps some didn’t survive.  But I’m intrigued by how we can recognize that our circumstances are dire, and yet,  given perhaps some minimum level of personal strengths, support from others and resources in the environment (and maybe a measure of good luck), manage to create enough meaning and hope to survive and overcome that difficult experience.