Finding your authentic self through story.

I just finished reading one of the most compelling stories I think I’ve ever read:  Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden.  It is the incredible tale of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to have been born in a North Korean work camp and to have survived a harrowing escape.  He was about 24 when he escaped and for his entire life inside the camp, he knew nothing of currency, TV, mass transit, washing machines or any basic luxury the Western World takes for granted.  Quite the opposite, he lived in a malnourished, outrageously cruel, unthinkably inhumane environment where he watched his brother be executed, his mother hung and witnessed hundreds of other human rights atrocious we don’t dare to even comprehend.

As someone who spends her life encouraging others to tell their story, I was struck by Author Blaine Harden’s conclusion to the book.  Now, that’s not to say I wasn’t struck every other page by the experiences Shin had to endure, but Harden’s ending had some relevance for me.

Let me explain first that someone with Shin’s story should demand an audience’s attention.  He ate the same thing every day his entire life, he never lived without lice, he extracted feces for fertilizer, had his finger cut off for dropping a sewing machine, got new clothes every other year, bathed once a year, never had a bed, was poorly educated until he was about 10 (and was then put to work), and had no true relationship with anyone. During his escape, his friend was killed on the electric fence first and only then could Shin scale the fence using him as insulation.  The subsequent burns on his legs bled for six months.  And that’s seriously about one-tenth of this story.

But the writer, who had heard Shin talk was never that that compelled hearing his formal presentations.  Even Shin said that “his meandering question-and-answer sessions were putting people to sleep.”

On one occasion at a church in Seattle, the writer was especially encouraged by Shin to come hear him talk.  “It was at this moment that he revealed his true motives for fleeing camp 14 were not noble; he did not thirst for freedom or

political rights — he was merely hungry for meat.”

But at that moment, Shin revealed his true self, and told his authentic story.  He finally took advice and prepared the parts that revealed insight against his life.  I can imagine he struggled to decide which stories truly demonstrated the characteristics of the North Korean regime.  I can imagine he had to balance his story against those of many others – including his family, many of whom were executed.  I can imagine he had to finally ask himself – what can I do about

it now?  And in that moment, he got to the bottom line.

Harden writes: “Preparation paid off.  That evening, his listeners squirmed in their pews, their faces showing discomfort, disgust, anger and shock.  Some faces were stained with tears.  When Shin was finished, when he told the congregation that one man, if he refuses to be silenced, could help free the tens of thousands who remain in North Korea’s labor camps – the church exploded in applause.”

In that speech, if not yet in his life, Shin had seized control of his past. ”

We, as a world, have so much to learn from Shin.  Resilience, determination, commitment, fortitude, strength, endurance and more.  But when Shin decided to tell his authentic story with planning and mindfulness, they just didn’t learn something, they were finally moved to do something.