Sources of inspiration: Alan Johnston

By Martin Vogel

Alan Johnston
Alan Johnston

A year ago this week, I was listening to a radio programme which made such an impression on me that my thoughts have returned to it many times since.  It was a 30-minute essay by the BBC reporter, Alan Johnston, in which he described his experience of being kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza.  He’d been seized by Palestinian militants in March 2007, and held for nearly four months.

As a BBC employee at the time, and a former journalist, I’d naturally taken a great interest in his story and shared the relief and joy that coursed through the organisation when he was released.  I didn’t know Alan Johnston personally, but recognised the integrity and courage of his journalism.  In describing his ordeal, he showed characteristic decency as his narrative combined understanding of his tormentors with great insight into his personal condition.

It is the latter that has stuck in my mind.  In one section of the programme, Alan Johnston explains how he maintained his mental integration under circumstances of extreme duress.  He knew he had to fight off depression so he drew on a variety of techniques to strangle negative thoughts and encourage positive ones:

“Of course, at first glance, there was not much to take heart from in my situation. But the fact was that I had not been killed, and I was not being beaten around. I was being fed reasonably, and I decided that my conditions could have been much, much worse. Whatever else it was, my Gazan incarceration was not what Iraqi prisoners had been forced to endure at Abu Ghraib jail. It was not the Russian Gulag, and it certainly was not the Nazi death camps. I felt that I would not be able to pick up a book again about the Holocaust without feeling a sense of shame, if I were somehow to break down mentally under the very, very, very much easier circumstances of my captivity.

“I thought too that, unfortunately, every day around the world, people are being told that they have cancer, and that they only have a year or two to live. But the vast majority of them find the strength to face the end of their lives with dignity and courage. I, on the other hand, was just waiting for my life to begin again, and I told myself that it would be shameful if I could not conduct myself with some grace in the face of my much lesser challenge.”

It’s an account that echoes that of Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived the Nazi concentration camps.  In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl analyses the factors which contributed to his own and others’ survival and, like Alan Johnston, alights on the importance of retaining control of one’s own state of mind:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

And, also like Alan Johnston, he recognises in the ordeal an existential test in which the manner in which one conducts oneself becomes possibly more important than the eventual outcome:

“Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.  Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

Alan Johnston’s account goes on to draw on another great examplar of survival: the explorer, Edward Shackleton, who led a doomed expedition to the Antarctic but brought home every one of his crew against formidable odds.

He seems somewhat abashed by this line of thought, but it made perfect sense to me as I listened to his programme:

“In its search for inspiration, my mind took me down what may sound to you like some rather strange paths. But for me, as impressive as any story of endurance, is that of the explorer, Ernest Shackleton. After his ship was crushed by the Antarctic ice nearly a century ago, he took a tiny lifeboat and set out across the great wastes of the stormy Southern Ocean. He aimed for an almost unimaginably small island far beyond his horizon, and eventually he reached it. And in my prison, I felt that I needed some kind of mental lifeboat, to help me cross the great ocean of time that lay before me, aiming for that almost unimaginable moment far beyond my horizon when I might somehow go free. And so I took all the positive thoughts I could muster and lashed them together in my mind, like planks in a psychological raft that I hoped would buoy me up. And in some ways it did. It was one of several mental devices, or tricks, or props that helped me get through.

“In this way, I fought what was the psychological battle of my life. God knows, it was hard, and lonely, and there were many dark passages when I edged close to despair. But I was always in the fight, and there was no collapse.”

There is such a distance between the grim battle for psychological survival fought by an isolated captive in a Gazan safe house and the more mundane challenges the rest of us face that it might seem fanciful to draw an analogy between them.  But our challenges are real to us, nonetheless, and just as Alan Johnstone looked to circumstances of more extreme suffering to bolster his own endurance, so we can draw inspiration from his.  I was impressed in his story by his ability to draw on motivating imagery and shut down unhelpful lines of thought.  But, most of all, I admired his understated dignity, the humility with which he viewed his situation in relation to those in the death camps, the gulags or Abu Ghraib.  On a fair few occasions since hearing his programme last year, when I’ve been struggling with something, I’ve remembered Alan’s broadcast and thought I could do worse than simply “conduct myself with some grace in the face of my much lesser challenge.”

Alan Johnston’s From Our Own Correspondent broadcast is still available to hear on the BBC website. A transcript is also available.

Kidnapped and Other Dispatches by Alan Johnston is available from Amazon.