Those who have survived battle find it hard to readjust to ‘normality’.
If you read the Lord of the Rings trilogy or saw the film version, you will know that at the end, the four brave hobbits have returned to the Shire. They share a beer together at a table in a pub. While surrounded by others, they know they will never be the same — they will never be like the other hobbits. What they went through has marked them for life.
For each one, only the other three will ever truly know what they have experienced. How could it be any other way? Those who never left the Shire to engage in such heroic feats in the face of such horrible danger and overwhelming odds will never comprehend what they had been through. And most would not even want to know about it.
This certainly is true in real life. Those who courageously fought in World War II for example, and managed to return home alive, went through things that those who did not go will never fully comprehend nor be able to identify with. And often the returning soldiers preferred not to talk about the horrors of war anyway.
Lately, I have been reading various accounts of the French resistance, especially stories of the many brave women who were involved. There are plenty of books out there on this topic. Let me mention just one: A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead (Harper Perennial, 2011).
It tells the story of 230 courageous women who were involved in various aspects of resistance, all of whom were captured by the Gestapo and imprisoned, eventually ending up in Auschwitz. Life was bad enough in Nazi-occupied France, but as prisoners they were subjected to unspeakable horrors. Only 49 of them made it back to France alive.
Near the end of this harrowing account, we learn a bit about what life was like once they were finally able to return to their homeland:
Many came home feeling that they carried with them what David Rousset, another camp survivor, would call ‘gangrene’, the whole terrifying, shocking ordeal that lived on to haunt survivors.
‘I no longer had the right to be unhappy,’ wrote one woman, ‘but there existed no pleasure or joy capable of compensating for the suffering I had been through. I came back bringing the camp with me, and yet I felt totally alone.’
Having survived the unsurvivable in order to return, the idyllic world of kindness and ease they had held and nursed in their minds quickly seemed little more than an illusion. Life was flat, empty. The women thought of themselves as travellers in another land, no longer quite like other people.
Having so badly wanted to live, they found they no longer cared whether they did so or not. They had told themselves that in the camps they had endured the whole gamut of misfortune, and that now they were entitled to happiness. But happiness eluded them.
Most found they could not bear to sleep alone, and dragged a mattress into their parents’ rooms; unable to digest anything but bland food, their teeth missing or sore, they ate little mouthfuls out of teaspoons. They flinched if anyone made a sudden movement, as if to ward off a blow, and they avoided striped materials.
They found they could no longer cry at funerals, having seen so many people die. They worried that they looked peculiar and behaved oddly. and were ashamed of their missing teeth. Brutalised and starved for over two years, they found it almost impossibly hard to relearn how to live in a world not governed by force and cunning. They felt irritable, distracted.
A few were obsessed with the need to confront the men who had betrayed them. Germaine Renaudin and her husband went to Bordeaux to look for the two policemen who had tortured her in the Fort du Ha. Both men had died in the war.
Charlotte tracked down the men of the Brigades Spéciales who had arrested her and Dudach: she was told that they had both fought against the Germans during the liberation — Résistants de la derniére heure — and were thus immune from prosecution.
What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through. Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent.
Often as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to. ‘It wasn’t food we wanted,’ Cécile would say. ‘It was talk. But no one wanted to listen’.
Sometimes they talked about why they had survived, what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others.
In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity.
They had learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise.
They would tell each other that for all its extreme horror, the experience had made them more receptive, more interested in the world around them, more conscious of the suffering of others, though they worried that they were not true witnesses, in Primo Levi’s sense, in that only their dead friends, the sommersi, the drowned, could really bear witness to the full horror.
And they would agree that there were times when the past and the memory of the camps was more real to them than the world about them. Many suffered from poor health, exhaustion, bad eyesight and such terrible nightmares that they fought against going to sleep. They felt, and looked, far older than their years.
Lulu told the others that she could not stop dreaming that she smelt burning flesh and bones, and that it was months before she could bear the taste of coffee again. Charlotte longed for the first year of return to end, so that she would no longer be able to say to herself: ‘a year ago, at this time…’
Even when they were not able to meet, the survivors continued to feel bound to each other in ways that did not weaken with time. There remained a familiarity between them, a sense of openness and ease that they shared with no one else.
Not in any way to make light of what these incredible women went through, one can offer some spiritual lessons here. While the Christian today nowhere near faces what these women endured, he nonetheless is also a stranger in a strange land. He is never fully at home in this world. The Christian life is one of warfare, and as such, there is no lasting ‘normal’ life to be returned to.
Sure, there can be plenty of times of rest and relaxation, of going on holidays, of enjoying food and friends, and the like. But the real Christian never quite feels at home here. Engaged as he is in continuous spiritual warfare, there are plenty of battle scars to show for his efforts.
The ones he will feel closest to, and have the most in common with, are fellow warriors who have also been in the trenches. He will most relate to and feel an affinity with other Christian soldiers who know that the stakes are high, that battle is the need of the hour, and that no true rest will be found here in this life.
Plenty of the great saints have said such things. Let me finish with a few quotes from these men of God:
“Where are you? You are in enemy country, a stranger and an alien. The world is not your friend. If it is, then you are not God’s friend, for whoever is the friend of the world is the enemy of God. Be certain that you will find enemies everywhere. When you sleep, remember that you are resting on the battlefield; when you travel, suspect an ambush in every hedge.”
~ Charles Spurgeon
“When a nation calls its prime men to battle, homes are broken, weeping sweethearts say their good-byes, businesses are closed, college careers are wrecked, factories are refitted for wartime production, and rationing and discomforts are accepted — all for war. Can we do less for the greatest fight that this world has ever known outside of the cross — this end-time siege on sanity, morality and spirituality?”
~ Leonard Ravenhill
“There is a war going on. All talk of a Christian’s right to live luxuriously ‘as a child of the King’ in this atmosphere sounds hollow — especially since the King Himself is stripped for battle.”
~ John Piper
“The saddest symptom about many so-called Christians is the utter absence of anything like conflict and fight in their Christianity. They eat, they drink, they dress, they work, they amuse themselves, they get money, they spend money, they go through a scanty round of formal religious services once every week. But of the great spiritual warfare — its watchings and strugglings, its agonies and anxieties, its battles and contests — of all this they appear to know nothing at all.”
~ J. C. Ryle
“The Christian life… is a warfare, it is a struggle. ‘We wrestle.’ The whole section is designed to impress this fact upon us. There is no grosser or greater misrepresentation of the Christian message than that which depicts it as offering a life of ease with no battle and struggle at all. … The first thing we have to realize is that the Christian life is a warfare, that we are strangers in an alien land, that we are in the enemy’s territory. We do not live in a vacuum, in a glasshouse. The teaching which gives the impression that the pathway to glory is all easy and simple and smooth is not Christianity, it is not Paul’s Christianity, it is not New Testament Christianity. It is the hallmark of the quack remedy always, that it cures everything so easily! One dose, and there is no more trouble!”
~ Martyn-Lloyd Jones
“Men think of the world not as a battleground, but as a playground. We are not here to fight; we are here to frolic. We are not in a foreign land; we are at home.”
~ A. W. Tozer
While it is hoped that most of us will never experience the hellishness that these resistance fighters went through, all genuine saints will know something about battle, about hardships, and about the costs of (spiritual) war.
Originally published at CultureWatch.