Friday, August 19, 2011

When the going gets really tough . . . we still have a choice

In the last post, I talked about how the snow here in Dunedin helped me see how important it is to prepare and how much our response to events influences our understanding of those events. As I mentioned, the post was not only inspired by the snow but also by a film I saw. At first I wanted to put them in one post, but there is no way to compare a snowy day to what the film portrayed. I have been thinking about the film all week, and I finally have the words to put down about its impact on me and what I think it has to teach us about yoga in everyday life.

The film is called "Brother Number One," and it is a documentary about a New Zealander who accidentally drifted into the waters of Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge regime. He was taken as a prisoner, tortured, forced to confess, and eventually killed. It was gut wrenching, and I was openly weeping, as were many others, even though there was not one scene of violence, and only a few grotesque pictures during the entire movie. I’m really hoping the film makes it to the United States and around the world. I highly recommend you see it. Here is a link to the film's website, and here is a link to their facebook page.

The last post was about snow and a yoga reminder that we can face just about any challenge life throws our way if we prepare for it and confront it with joy and wonder rather than fear and anguish. I thought about that as I walked out of the film into the snow. I had decided not to drive into town that day, but that meant taking a bus home, and the buses going up the hills were cancelled. I was irritated that I would have to walk up the hill, in snow. Then I caught myself. I just watched a film about torture, and I was concerned about walking up a hill? This is no small hill, but it still seemed petty after the film. It was not until the next day that I had my fun in the snow walking back down that hill.

So, when life throws us snow, or other minor issues, it is easy to say “be prepared,” and confront those situations with openness. But what about real torture? What about those situations that go to the core of our being set on destroying us? Remarkably, even in those situations, we have a choice. We can still choose how to respond.

Perhaps the most moving part of the film was when we got to see the “confession” of the tortured Kiwi. The Khmer Rouge required him to confess that he was a member of the CIA and/or KGB (honestly as I think about it, I cannot remember which one because the confessions were always about one or the other or both). In this “confession,” he wrote about learning spy techniques from Colonel Sanders and about his commander S. Tarr (his mother’s name was Esther). This man, while being physically and emotionally tortured, found a way to make a few jokes and pay tribute to those he loved. The Khmer Rouge were oblivious to his humor, yet I find myself thinking that he relished in it. He could play his own game, get outside of the horrific situation and embrace his inner self. It is impossible not to compare these actions to those of Viktor Frankl during the Holocaust.

And speaking of the Holocaust, that is my own family’s history. I have one remaining great, great aunt who was in Auschwitz, and many members of her generation died at the hands of the Nazis. I have visited Auschwitz. But to tell you the truth, I had almost no emotional reaction there. Instead, I cried while walking through Anne Frank’s house. The enormity of a situation is hard to conceive, but one person, one story, touches us in different ways.

These individual stories, from humoristic confessions to a grown man finding his peace amidst the horrors of concentration camps, to a young girl grappling with looking for the good in all people while hiding from the darkest side of humanity, remind us that even in these situations, our response remains within our control. The documentary reminded me that we all have capacities beyond that which we consciously know.

These stories, while painful and inspiring all at the same time, are not to show us that these responses are easy. But they are possible. Personally, I would rather come to know these capacities through yoga and Antarctic winds than torture or even disease. When we take the time to do yoga, to meditate, to be conscious of our responses to the little things in life, we train ourselves to be conscious of our responses to the harder parts of life. Learning to respond is like a muscle that can get stronger with use. Each time we stop and respond rather than react, we remind our conscious and unconscious selves that it is possible.

I am grateful to this film for this reminder. I hope the story can spread. And I hope we can all use it as a kickstart to begin being more mindful of our reactions and responses to that which annoys us, or worse, in our everyday lives.

Do you try to respond consciously to situations in life?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. Great post and I agree with a lot of what you say. Cambodia also has it's own documentation centre DCCAM ( and Tuol Sleng Museum ( that show the photos taken of each prisoner.
    This is the part I found most disturbing, the documentation of each prisoner before they were imprisoned and later executed.

    Images and films are a great way to try to illicit responses from audiences who might otherwise not know anything about a particular event. But I'm glad there are also people like yourself, and other lawyers working in areas of human rights (children rights etc) who are actually working to bring justice.

  2. Thanks, Ghazeleh. I absolutely agree that films are a huge part of the process of learning and growing. Thanks for pointing me to these other sites as well. Learning these stories is crucial.

    Also, I agree that the documentation makes it even harder to stomach. The Nazis were the same. Another friend mentioned the film "Sarah's Key" to me on the facebook page, and it even mentioned how well known the Nazis are for their documentation. That film, however, is about the French.

    I think the time has come for us to know what humans are capable of doing to other humans. It is brutally painful to see, but perhaps with the knowledge, it can begin to stop.

  3. sorry for late reply! But yes absolutely true!

    Sarah's Key is a great film, and if you want to see a film that is made completely from actual footage that the Nazi's made as well just after, 'Night and Fog' is fantastic (though very hard to watch). It's on youtube.

    Hope the thesis is going well!