5 life lessons born of adversity from Amanda Lindhout
The first day of Partner Connect 2019 featured a truly inspiring survival story from journalist and New York Times bestselling author, Amanda Lindhout. Here are the key tools from what she calls her “resilience toolbox”.
Warning: This material contains references to violence that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
Amanda Lindhout was a journalist in her late 20s when she was kidnapped by Somali terrorists and held to ransom for 460 days.
The fact that she not only survived, but has gone on to write a book on her experiences that is now being turned into a major motion picture, is testament to her strength of character.
The events of that book, A House in the Sky: A Memoir, were presented in summary by Lindhout to an audience of accountants and bookkeepers on the first day of MYOB Partner Connect 2019. The tale is not only utterly captivating and touching, it also contains a number of important lessons for anyone willing to hear them.
Lindhout began her story at the point of her childhood when she dreamed of adventure, and of travelling far from her home town in Alberta, Canada. She noted, in passing, that her family life wasn’t always peaceful – but it was a far cry from what was waiting later in life.
1. Build a toolbox of resilience
“I wanted to see conflict zones,” Lindhout said, while describing her motivation to become a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.
“It was around 2008 when I learned about the war in Somalia – there were stories of a country falling apart, of true starvation and a food crisis.
“I pitched the story to all the news directors I could and they were interested, but if I was going then I was going as a freelancer.”
It was a risk she says that, at the time, she was willing to assume.
“I thought it was going to be a one-week trip.”
On the third day after arriving in Somalia, Lindhout and her photographer colleague, Nigel, were taken hostage by a group of boys armed with AK47s and told they would be ransomed for millions of dollars.
“We both came from countries that don’t pay ransoms and we don’t come from wealthy families – we were in trouble,” she recounted.
Over her time in captivity, the treatment Lindhout received from her captors only worsened, and as the days and months passed, she soon found herself relying on a toolbox of “positive self-talk, visualisation, meditation and prayer”.
It’s these ‘tools’ that she’s so passionate about sharing with others.
2. Strengthen the things that connect you to resilience
Lindhout described an attempt to escape in the early months of her captivity that ultimately led to her being taken to a new holding house, which she thinks of as “the dark house”.
“In the dark house I was consumed every minute by the overwhelming despair I was living in,” Lindhout said.
She called the place the dark house because her captors had gone to great efforts to block out the windows and cracks in the walls so that she was literally spending her life chained in the dark.
But even as things continued to worsen, Lindhout realised there was a quiet voice of hope that remained inside of her.
“This voice is the resilience part of ourselves that’s always there.
“In life there will always be despair and despair is loud – but the resilience is always there, quietly running alongside.”
It’s Lindhout’s opinion that everyone should make time to build up that voice of resilience when they have the freedom to do so, that way it’s strong should there ever come a time it’s actually needed.
3. Learn compassion for your own sake
Each day during the months spent in the dark house, Lindhout said that a young man by the name of Abdullah was sent to hurt her.
“Like many of my kidnappers, he was an orphan and had never been to school; he was raised in this war-torn environment where there is death and guns and violence every day.
“One day, Abdullah was hurting me, and as always, I was just raging against him and wanting him to die.
“And I found myself at breaking point.”
It was at this point that Lindhout had her first out-of-body experience that, she said, a psychologist would later term ‘disassociation’.
“But perhaps it was also something more,” she said.
Lindhout recalled looking down at two people – herself and the person physically abusing her – and feeling a sudden sadness for this person who was hurting her, as “all of his stories started coming into my head”.
She had a sudden revelation that Abdullah wasn’t an evil force, but the victim of abuse himself.
“When he left the room that day, I was surprised and distressed that I’d felt something akin to compassion for this person.
“After that, I kept going in search of that feeling and it became clear to me that the captors were also victims.
“A happy, healthy person doesn’t have the desire to hurt others like they would hurt me.”
From that point on, Lindhout came to see compassion as a key tool in her resilience toolbox – something that was critical to her own survival for the duration.
“I’m not saying I always could [feel compassion], but it made sense to me and gave me some relief from the intensity of the anger and the hate I was feeling.
“The compassion wasn’t for them – it was the best thing I could feel for myself.”
4. Search for the moments of gratitude
As if the daily doses of pain weren’t enough, eventually Lindhout’s tormentors took it upon themselves to find new and unusual ways to motivate her family to come up with a ransom.
“One day these boys came into my dark room holding a twisted-up bedsheet that they used as a rope to tie my arms and legs together behind my back.
“They left me like that for three days.
“I almost died.”
Lindhout felt that something was willing her to live during those three days, but almost as soon as she was finally released, she wished she hadn’t.
“They brought a phone and called my mother, held it to my face and told me to tell her that ‘everything has changed’ and to ‘send money’.
“When they left the room that day, they told me they’d be back again tomorrow to do it all again.
“That was the first time I decided to kill myself.”
Lindhout spent another night in darkness as her circulation slow returned to her limbs, and she considered using the razor blade she had secreted in the room to end her life.
As daylight broke, a tiny sliver of light crept into the room through the door her captors had inadvertently left ajar.
Without the strength to do much more than clutch the razorblade in her hand, a small movement caught Lindhout’s eye.
“I saw a small, brown bird hopping in that little bit of light.
“I’ve always believed that life gives us signs if we’re willing to believe them, and in that moment that bird was a messenger of some kind telling me to hold on.
“And in that moment the desire to end my life left me, and in that moment I was determined to survive no matter what.”
From then on, Lindhout began developing her gratitude practice (modelled after Oprah Winfrey’s advice, which Lindhout said was foundational for her as a child).
And, while it wasn’t the last time her captors tied her up like that, it was the last time Lindhout determined to kill herself.
“No matter what, I could always find something to be thankful for.
“Sometimes it was the birds singing that would just remind me there was a world out there – a world that I couldn’t wait to be a part of again someday.”
After 460 days of torture and deprivation, Lindhout and her compatriot Nigel were freed and they at last found themselves to be on the journey home.
5. Take the best from the worst
Lindhout arrived back home to find that more than a year in captivity had left her word irrevocably changed.
Not only had she missed out on several close friends marrying and starting to have kids, she soon developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which was only vaguely conceived of by many of the people back home.
“I had to find a good therapist who knew how to help me,” said Lindhout.
“It took a couple of years, but when I found her it really changed the game.”
In their very first session, Lindhout recounted all the terrible experiences she’d suffered through and all the ways in which she felt it had ruined her life.
“She listened the whole time and, afterwards, said ‘Yes, all of that is true, and all of that happened and it’s important to acknowledge, but—’ she asked me: ‘Amanda, are there any ways these terrible experiences have added to your life and enriched you in any way?’
“I was angry – enraged by the idea.
“There can be no gifts in something like this.”
Lindhout’s therapist proceeded to remind her that humans are ‘growth-seeking beings’ and that challenge and pain is what causes us to grow.
“It’s taken years for me to become open-minded enough to consider the possibility and, once opened, to consider what it is that the experience has actually given me.”
Lindhout now recognises that, despite everything she’s been through, those same events brought her family together and also connected her to something she feels is much larger than herself.
Her terrifying ordeal, now over, has become something of a mission for Lindhout, to the point that she now forces herself to relive it again and again – an experience she finds both difficult and therapeutic.
Towards the end of her presentation, Lindhout paused for a long moment, closing her eyes as she drew several, long breaths.
“Sometimes when I travel, as I did to come here – that can rattle my physical system just a little bit, just a little bit that makes me feel susceptible to PTSD.
“So, here I am on stage feeling that little bit of activation and I have to think to myself, ‘Isn’t this perfect?’
“Because I can be a living example of the truth of what I’m saying, as I can be here with the discomfort in my system and yet in alignment with my purpose.”
For Lindhout, whatever she’s gone through in life is something that’s connected her to all the things that everyone goes through in life – and she’s dragged meaning from it so that others don’t have to experience the depths of that darkness in order to learn from it.
“Whatever you’ve gone through in your life, you too can get through – you too have this incredible core of resilience.
“Everything you really need is right here,” she said, hand-to-heart, “Right here.”