68. The Love Symbol

68. The Love Symbol

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

The Love Symbol

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whenever I need to forgive myself or someone else, an image of Laird flashes in my mind. No one would suspect this seventy-four-year-old man in red suspenders had survived five years as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam.

Yet there he sat that first day, looking like actor Jack Nicholson, crunching an English muffin in a back booth of the Village Inn. A local magazine had hired me to profile him. As a pacifist studying nonviolent communication, his was a story I didn’t particularly want to hear. More brutality. Little awareness.

But who could resist Laird? He must have been something when he became a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps at eighteen, I thought, double-checking my tape recorder. And even more of something when at forty-two, he volunteered for combat duty in North Vietnam. That’s when a MiG-21, with heat-seeking missiles, shot down his plane.

Moments before his jet crashed in the mountains near Hanoi, he bailed out, landing on a heavily traveled trail, he said. For ten hours, he crouched under a bush amid gunfire and screaming soldiers.

At dusk, he heard girls giggling. One girl needed to pee. Out of twenty-five bushes nearby, she picked his. Reaching her hand around the bush, she felt his face and shrieked.

Laird’s captors blindfolded him, tying a rope around his neck, yanking it so that he moved in the rhythm of sudden slavery: taking a few steps, stumbling, sliding, falling over slippery rocks.

The rest of the night he faced a torture known as the rope trick. His captors tied his arms behind his back with his wrists together. They put a rope around his elbows and drew the rope together until it dislocated his shoulders.

They tortured him repeatedly. Over time, he endured five rounds of the rope trick, surviving minute by minute. “Then they completely broke me, physically and emotionally,” he said. His eyes never left mine. “I began screaming, agreeing to do anything they asked. I knew I’d throw my kids into a fire to make them quit. I was in a full panic. This was far worse than being tortured and dying.”

While in solitary, Laird became overwhelmed by fear, anger, and hatred. He vowed to contact a scientist once released, one who would develop a spray that could kill not only his captors, but all North Vietnamese people.

“These people have no right to live,” he recalled feeling after listening to a baby laughing outside while a man inside screamed from torture.

“That’s the logic of hate groups,” he said. “That wasn’t me. I had to drop the fear.”

He willed himself to remember his training. Fear is corrosive. In a slavery situation, anger is non-productive. Frustrated anger becomes hatred. Hatred is self-torture, making you bitter and destroying your immune system.

“It’s the one thing you can bring home that can continue to destroy the people around you,” he said.

He remembered being a child plagued with nightmares. His mom, a Christian Scientist, encouraged him to soften his mind with beautiful thoughts.

“I’d think of pretty angels flying around on wings. If you fill yourself with love, there is no room left for fear. It’s like lighting a match in a dark room.”

Nice philosophy, but in solitary his heart couldn’t grasp love.

Then he remembered the letter his wife sent before he was captured. She’d described gritting her teeth, trying to get their kids to sleep without losing her cool. After bedtime prayers, their little girl threw her arms around her and said, “I love you, Mommy.”

Laird sighed, continuing, “All of a sudden the whole world’s in its rightful place. God is in the heavens. All’s well. I envisioned this, and it was like boom!—somebody took a big weight off my back.”

This became his symbol of love, something he visualized repeatedly for months.

“Suddenly, the fear left and along with the fear, the need for the anger and hatred.”

Next he realized he needed to learn to love a Power greater than himself.

“I created the God symbol, a sun on the horizon, neither rising nor setting.” A line of humanity pulsed from its center enveloping him. “I superimposed my love symbol on top of that symbol. Now I’m loving God.”

After reviving his love for God, he practiced “loving the least of My children,” figuring “the least of His children” was Big Ug, a particularly sadistic guard. For the next three years, Laird visualized Big Ug with the love symbol over him.

“One day I saw Big Ug and realized I wasn’t afraid of him. I felt sorry for the poor slug. Can you imagine going through your life realizing all you did was torture Americans? When I realized he no longer filled me with fear, I realized putting the love symbol on him, in essence, praying for him, paid off. It does work.”

Another time, Laird enraged a guard so much, he knew the guard was ready to kick him.

“I’d reached my limit,” Laird said. “If anyone touched me, I’d come unglued. It was all I could do to superimpose my love symbol on him. He kicked me, but was so far away, he almost fell flat on his rear. Then he went berserk, turning to swing at me.

“I sat there with this love symbol on him, quaking in my boots. He missed me by two feet and swung all the way around. Now the terrible thing happened.”

Another guard started to laugh. The first guard commanded the laughing guard to get a rope to tie Laird to a hook in the ceiling ten feet above. The laughing guard returned with twine too tiny to wrap a decent package. The first guard blanched, beating his hands against the wall in frustration. Then the dinner gong sounded; both guards left.

Laird had no doubt his love symbol invited this moment’s grace.

Grace followed him home on March 17, 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords were signed. “You’re on cloud nine,” said every psychiatrist he saw. “When you crash, they’ll hear it from one end of the room to the other.”

But he never crashed. He’d forgiven his captors. No residue of hatred ever rose up again. Nothing remained but love and loyalty as he began speaking out for those missing in action.

“Every morning I wake up saying, ‘Wow! I’ve got another whole day.’ ”

He stopped talking and grinned. I couldn’t move. His words had altered the air of this ordinary diner. I didn’t want to leave.

So I didn’t.

Every Monday for two years we met in this back booth while he shared his life’s stories for an autobiography he longed to write. He passed away before we completed the project. But his stories, those I didn’t want to hear, continue to shape and reshape me, as I navigate my own past and present pain—divorces, drinking, everyday misunderstandings. I’ve learned to embrace humanity, my own and others, with loving awareness. My experiences can’t compare to his. That wasn’t his point. Pain is pain. No matter who or where we are, we have the power—and the right—to release ourselves from it. Forgiveness is a start.

~Jan Henrikson

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