We All Need Something to Die For
The 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid once declared that a truly
fulfilling life involves three requirements. We need, he said,
"something to live on, something to live for, and something to die for."
The lack of one of these attributes, Norwid explained, "results in
drama. The lack of two results in tragedy."
The hardest part of
Norwid's prescription for a fulfilling life is discerning what we are
willing to die for. A powerful example of such sacrificial commitment
occurred during World War II when Ernest Gordon, a Scottish-born British
army officer, was captured by the Japanese and forced with thousands of
other military prisoners to construct a new railway line to Burma
through the dense jungles of Thailand along the Kwai River.
British prisoners were treated like slaves. They labored 10 hours a day,
seven days a week, in brutal conditions. They toiled in 120-degree
heat, tormented by insects, exhaustion, malnutrition, disease and
monsoons. Beatings were routine; sickness and death were pervasive.
Those caught trying to escape were starved to death, bayoneted or
"We were treated worse than animals," Ernest Gordon
wrote in "Miracle on the River Kwai." "The conditions were worse than
you could imagine." Despair enveloped the camp; escape was impossible;
survival was unlikely.
Under these terrible conditions, 80,000
men died building the railway. Gordon recalled that "We could see only
one end for us all and that was death." Stripped of hope, the desperate
and degraded prisoners became brutish and selfish; they fought over food
scraps and stole from one another. Gordon called them "forsaken men."
Their very sense of humanity was rotting in the jungle.
came the day when one of the guards announced to the prisoners after a
hard day's toil that a shovel was missing. He demanded to know who was
responsible. When no one confessed, the guard went berserk, shouting
that all the prisoners in the work crew would be killed. "All die! All
die!" he shouted.
The guard then cocked his rifle and aimed it at
the first prisoner at the end of the formation. His threat was real,
the tension was palpable. At that moment a prisoner stepped forward,
stood stiffly to attention, and said calmly, "I took the shovel."
enraged guard began kicking and beating the helpless confessor. Still,
the hapless British soldier stood rigidly at attention, blood streaming
down his face. His stoical silence so infuriated the guard that he
slammed his rifle on the soldier's head with such killing force that the
man collapsed in a heap. Although the British soldier was dead, the
guard continued to beat him until he was exhausted. The other prisoners
then picked up their comrade's limp body, shouldered their tools and
marched back to camp.
That evening, when the guards counted the
tools again, no shovel was missing. The dead man had confessed to
stealing a shovel that he had not taken. He was innocent. Yet in a split
second he had decided to give his life to save his companions. He
realized there were things worth dying for.
The soldier's act of
sacrificial love changed the camp survivors. They began once again to
treat each other like brothers. Prisoners nursed the sick and treated
their dead with more respect. Over the next few days and weeks, they
built a bamboo church, started a garden, began playing music and
singing, and formed a discussion group on ethics.
Armed with a
rising spirit of faith, hope and love, the prisoners collectively
developed what Gordon described as a will to life rather than a will to
death. Self-sacrifice, they realized, does lead to self-fulfillment.
They discovered that tears of suffering and solidarity can be the
fountain of God's grace in desperate times.
The story of the
transformation of the Kwai River prison camp serves as a powerful
parable at Eastertide. Because of the sacrifice of one man, the culture
of the prison camp was changed. There is a message here, something we
are meant to notice, to learn, to understand and to enact.
us, thank God, will be called upon to lay down our lives for others, as
the valorous prisoner of war did in the middle of the Thai jungle. But
we are expected to live less selfishly, to forgive more freely and to
love more fully. "Faith leads us beyond ourselves," said Pope John Paul
Abundant life begins for us when we stop being afraid of
death. The angel says, "Be not afraid," and Jesus adds, "You have
nothing to fear." By overcoming our selfishness and fear, we affirm,
like the murdered British soldier, that there are things worth living
for and even worth dying for.