Words for Life

I was 15 when the American POWs came home from Vietnam. That summer I attended a youth conference in the Winter Quarters Region, where our featured speaker was Col. Jay Hess, an LDS man who had been imprisoned in Hanoi for five years. He spoke for two hours and his stories overwhelmed me: the heroism of men who endured torture, their charity in forgiving each other for statements wrenched from them against their exhausted will, the cleverness of their secret communications, their unity despite individual isolation, the care with which they chose every word for infrequent cards to their families. I have since built tiny lamps imitating the ones they made from bent spoons with grease skimmed from their soup, fragments of rag torn from their clothing for wicks. “Lead, Kindly Light� has never been the same for me, since feeling its meaning to a man huddled in a dark, dank hole, his eyes on the tiny flame in his spoon.

We broke for lunch after that fascinating, moving, enthralling talk, and unexpectedly I found myself in the lunch line immediately behind Col. Hess. I wanted so much to tell him how I admired him and how I would never forget what he had shared, but I was as awkward and tongue-tied as any 15-year-old ever was. I could say nothing.

The lunch line reached the drink counter. It was a typical cafeteria display with four or five soft drinks, milk, water, and lemonade. Perfectly ordinary. Col. Hess turned and met my eye, and with a grin he said, “So many choices!�

WHAM! I lost my breath as well as my speech. This man, who had suffered such total control at times that he could not choose to move a finger or to keep his mouth from babbling words he desperately wanted to suppress, recognized and celebrated the most ordinary opportunities to choose.

Those words have picked me up at times throughout my life. When I’m out of sorts, I choose to walk on the other side of the street, simply because I can. On P-day outings when bored mission districts declared there was nothing to do for two hours until the train came, I would count how many uniquely French sights I could pick out while my companions passed, oblivious. Best of all, when I felt so trapped in dead-end work that I could hardly bear to go on, “so many choices� inspired me to find a new way to live my life.

A few years ago I used the internet to track down Brother Hess and wrote to tell him what an influence he had been for the previous 25 years. He wrote a gracious letter in reply, which I treasure.

So, what are the empowering, inspiring words of your life?

[correction: Bro. Hess was in captivity for five years, rather than seven as originally stated]

19 comments for “Words for Life

  1. Julie M. Smith
    November 5, 2006 at 8:39 pm

    With apologies to Albert Camus, I believe there will always be “an invincible winter” for me.

  2. mami
    November 5, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Beautifully written Ardis! I can’t think of a good answer to your question though. I’ll have to think about it.

  3. Tatiana
    November 5, 2006 at 9:50 pm

    Wow, that’s awesome! What a great post! I don’t have anything to add, but just thank you for that! =)

  4. annegb
    November 6, 2006 at 12:21 am

    One thing a member of AA said to me when I was lamenting some action or the other, thinking I’d ruined something or someone, I don’t remember the exact circumstances: “You’re not that powerful.” I love not having the power to ruin the world.

  5. queuno
    November 6, 2006 at 1:38 am

    My grandfather was a crusty old man — he had lived a tough life on the mean streets of South Central Utah, pre-depression Provo, and the poor sections of Salt Lake City. Shirking from a challenge was not in his nature. He had been a firefighter in Salt Lake City; his brothers were miners. I visited him a few days before he went in for a surgery from which he would not regain consciousness. I was at BYU; I had hopes of working for one of the Novells or WordPerfects or one of those types of businesses in Utah. My family was from Utah, but I had been born and raised out in Big Ten Country. I think my “default” option was to marry a zoobie and settle down into Wasatch life and reclaim my Utah heritage.

    He asked me to lean down so that he could give me some advice for my life plan after I’d graduated. His voice soft, yet firm: “Get the hell out of Utah”.

    Fast-forward a couple of years. My bride and I were weighing an internship in TGSOT. We didn’t want to take it, necessarily — it was a year in duration, and we had just been dealt a nasty hand by the evil agents of Gates. My BIL tells us — “Look, it’s just a year. That’s half a mission. How bad could it be?”

    Those two pieces of advice — in my near-graduate state — made all the difference. The internship formed the basis for practically everything that has happened to me in the subsequent years. I wouldn’t have taken it without my BIL’s advice. I wouldn’t have even looked for an internship outside Utah without my grandfather’s.

    I know those aren’t necessarily “spiritual” messages — but in a very tangible way, my spiritual development would have been hopelessly stymied if I hadn’t listened.

  6. Jacob
    November 6, 2006 at 3:52 am

    Wow Ardis, wonderful post, thank you for sharing this. I love that you were able to track him down and tell him what it meant to you.

  7. ukann
    November 6, 2006 at 4:23 am

    Thank you Ardis, for this and other great posts. I am enjoying them so much. The words I have to – far to often – say to myself come from the second verse of hymn 172 “fill our (my) heart(s) with sweet forgiving; teach us (me) tolerance and love”

  8. Anonymous
    November 6, 2006 at 6:04 am

    My grandfather, a wonderful man in many respects, was also an alcoholic and a childbeater. His violence was so ferocious that the sounds would disrupt the entire neighbourhood. Neighbors attempted to intervene, but would quickly retreat in the face of his fury and physical strength. My father was typically the target of this violence, but when he went away to college his mother and younger sister increasingly bore the brunt of his anger.

    One evening while returning from his first semester at college, my father found my grandfather in full force. Neighbors called out from behind their own locked doors and latched windows, imploring my grandfather to stop, “raising the devil� with his family. My father, still much shorter and slimmer than my grandfather, pushed my grandmother and aunt into an adjoining room and closed the door. My grandfather roared at him to get out of the way. He promised to beat him senseless as he had so many times before. My father fixed him with his eye and in a quiet voice replied, “Don’t bet on it.� My grandfather stared at him for a moment and then turned and left. He never returned in anger and died a few years later.

    My father and I have never discussed this episode. He describes his father as the most loving of men. I know of it only from my grandmother who died last year.

    Unfortunately, my father and I have had a strained relationship for much of our lives. But when I find myself feeling negatively about him, I like to think of him fixing my grandfather with his eye and quietly saying, “Don’t bet on it.” In many ways it encapsulates who he is and what he stands for.

  9. Lamonte
    November 6, 2006 at 9:35 am

    Ardis – Thanks for sharing this experience that has impacted your life. Several years ago (1996) I had a conflict with a colleague at work. I call him a colleague but I was not so charitable at that time because of a letter he had written to my boss accusing me of unprofessional behavior. I\’m not sure that words can describe how upset I was and I vowed to get revenge. For more than a week I was preoccupied by visions of that revenge and then on Friday morning I was traveling to work and listening to NPR. There was a story about the U.S.\’s plans to open an embassy in Hanoi after so many years of conflict between our nations. The new ambassador was a man named Pete Peterson who had previously been a Congressman from Florida and prior to that he had served in the Air Force. He had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam and was held at the Hanoi Hilton. The commentator explained that since his release he had been to Vietnam on (2) separate occasions and on the most recent trip he had met personally and privately with the man who had been the commander of the Hanoi Hilton. He said they talked for 2 or 3 hours about the war and their lives since the war. And then at the end of the meeting they \”shook hands and they came away as friends.\” That statement shook me to the core. How could I possibly hold a grudge against my colleague at work when this man could forgive, so easily, someone who had made his life a living hell for so many years? It\’s an experience I haven\’t forgotten but one that still haunts me whenever I realize how hard it is for me to forgive others. I wrote the ambassador a few years later and related my experience and he responded with a very kind note.

    As far as inspiring words for anyone who has considered starting a new business or any other endeavor that might be risky I remember the words of Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 as spoken by Tom Hanks. He was in the backyard looking up at the moon the night after Neil Armstrong had landed there and he said to his wife, \”It wasn\’t a miracle. We just decided to go.\”

  10. Karen
    November 6, 2006 at 10:30 am

    Thanks again Ardis!

  11. Margaret Young
    November 6, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    Lovely, Ardis. I live by the words, “There is always hope.”

  12. Mike
    November 6, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    When I said goodbye to my parents in the LTM and all the other fathers and mothers were dispensing the typical advice among the tears and hugs, my dad told me this: “If bullshit was music, this church would be a brass band.”

    It took me a couple decades to figure out what he meant. At the time I thought he was just being irreverent; his way of hiding his sadness at seeing me leave the nest. I never thought he intended that the church should be rejected or that it wasn’t worth it. Only that I would have to endure many things that felt like BS to me and the mission would definitely not be a haven from it.

    I think it really made sense to me a few years later when I was in the military and I was watching a brass band march down the streets of New Orleans, where my father had also served after WWII. Kinda crazy and loud and disorganized. Not exactly in tune, but filled with energy and soul.

    I wonder about the forces that would turn this church into a symphony orchestra. Maybe it would be better, if we could get everyone in tune and on the same page of music.

  13. Matt W.
    November 6, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    My dad knows I love him for ALWAYS saying “Don’t worry about things you can’t help. Focus on the things you can.” and raising us in a home where all of christianity was summed up in the “golden rule”, verbally and physically impressed.

    I owe Elder Seth Marek a lot for rebuking my wife at my baptism with these words “That’s why we love him.” I don’t know that we would have ever gotten together otherwise.

    There are many scriptures that come to mind, but I will lay them aside.

    On a cheaper note, when I felt drained of energy on my mission, the song “Here we go.” by the Bouncing Souls would start playing in my head and put fuel in my tank and get me to the next appointment. Not that everyone is into punk rock, but hey, It’s true nontheless.

    Also on a cheaper note, the expression “Sometimes you get the bar, and sometimes the bar gets you.” has helped me keep perspective when times were tough…

  14. Margaret Young
    November 6, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    Lamonte, that is such a beautiful account of the POW and his former captor. Is there someplace I could read more about it?

  15. Janet
    November 7, 2006 at 4:22 am

    What a beautiful post, Ardis. Thanks!

    I have four responses to your question:
    1. the high school English teacher who had our sophomore class watch footage from the liberation of Dachau (I think that was the camp, anyhow). Some of the students were acting flippant and he simply walked to the front of the room, looked silently at all of us, then flipped of the television and returned to his desk, where he put his head in his arms. The entire class stayed silent until the bell rant. The experience has stayed with me as testament that lecture and castigation aren’t the most powerful means of instilling respect. He simply let us see his heart break, and it broke past the indifference and callousness of a bunch of teenagers.

    2. “Dance in fountains”–the advice given by my friend Kim in my wedding album.

    3. Mother Theresa: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not yet here. I have only today to love God.” I repeat it to myself when burdened by recrimination or regret or anxiety and impatience.

    4. Nietzche: “I should only believe in a God who would know how to dance.” I was doing some “light” reading right before my mission and happened across this sentiment. I think it’s a good anthem for religious life :)

  16. Lamonte
    November 7, 2006 at 11:19 am

    Margaret – I’ve searched the NPR archives for a record of the show but I haven’t yet located anything. As I think about it now, I believe the story was broadcast in the late summer (August) of 1997. I’ll keep looking, however.

  17. Mark B.
    November 7, 2006 at 12:59 pm


    I found a story on Pete Peterson here:


    His comments about reconciliation come in the last minute and a half of the story.

    (It’s not precisely as you remembered, but, hey, nothing ever is quite as I remember it either.)

  18. Lamonte
    November 7, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    Mark B – Thanks for finding this. My computer speakers are not working today so I’ll check it out when I get home. Was I close? I’m not sure if it is the exact same story, although it seems like it must be. But my recollection is that it wasn’t Bob Edwards talking directly to Ambassador Petersen but rather one of the other reporters relating the story as told to him. Anyway, thanks for your good detective work.

  19. jose
    November 11, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    An inspiring word in my life came in Neil Sheehan’s biography of an unknown, John Paul Vann. Sheehan met John in the sixties and was so intrigued with Vann that he became the subject of a biography. John was born to a young, unwed mother. His father (and namesake) was never a part of young Vann’s life. John’s mom later married another man and John quickly began to love his step dad, so much that John asked his mom if he could assume his stepfather’s name. His mom, sensing the joy John would feel and wanting to remind John that his father had abandoned them refused. It was as if John would forever be punished for his father’s abandonment. When money became scarce in the depression, John’s mom turned to prostitution earn extra money. The money did not go to feed the malnourished children, but for her furs and to support her alcoholism. Things got progressively worse for John’s mom. She would leave the house for days while her husband would lovingly search after her. Finally, to her husband’s chagrin, John’s mom filed for divorce. Years passed with no further word from John’s mom. She became a homeless, drunken mess until her life came to an end when a stranger beat her head in and left her on a Norfolk street for dead. At the funeral, the family gathered together and the husband said, looking in her face one last time, “She looks as beautiful today as the day that we were married.�

    What compassion. What forgiveness.

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