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. â€œLead, Kindly Lightâ€? 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, â€œSo many choices!â€?
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 Iâ€™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, â€œso many choicesâ€? 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]