Every so often, I find one of the “The I Believe” podcasts that is so compelling that I just have to pass it along to you. That happened yesterday, as I was driving along listening to an episode of the great NPR series.
What came up on the iPod was the incredible story of Kim Phuc.
You have seen a picture of Kim. It was when she was nine-years-old, and running down the road between Phnom Penh and Saigon. She is naked. Her clothes have been burned off by a napalm bomb. She is crying. She is, to a generation, simply “the girl in the photograph.”
She’s an adult now, living in Canada with children of her own, and her essay for “This I Believe” has the enticing title of “The Long Road to Forgiveness.”
I remember when I first saw “the picture.” It was in a book of photographs from Life Magazine that we had around the house. Kind of a “best of” photo-collection from their history.
I remember at the time finding it hard to imagine that the picture was real. Apparently, so did Richard Nixon.
My excuse was that I was a child at the time (in fact Kim and I must be within a year of the same age) and photos like that were my first introduction to the horrors of war. It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem conceivable that anyone would hurt innocent children like that. But not only did people hurt them, they hurt them with the assistance of people…our government. There is something about a single image like that can help shape your conscience, and stay vivid in your brain.
Here’s how she describes that moment in her essay:
“I saw an airplane getting lower and then four bombs falling down. I saw fire everywhere around me. Then I saw the fire over my body, especially on my left arm. My clothes had been burned off by fire.
I was 9 years old but I still remember my thoughts at that moment: I would be ugly and people would treat me in a different way.”
Kim had an incredibly rough life after the photo was taken. She was hospitalized for 14 months, and endured dozens of surgeries. When the photo became an international sensation, she went from obscurity to a living propaganda tool of the Vietnamese government. They used her and her terrible story for years for their political gain.
She describes this period in this way:
“The anger inside me was like a hatred as high as a mountain. I hated my life. I hated all people who were normal because I was not normal. I really wanted to die many times.”
Years later, abroad on a study leave, she and her husband defected from Vietnam and ended up on Canada, where they live to this day.
Kim claims it was a conversation to Christianity in 1982 that allowed her to do that most difficult of all things. In her essay, Kim says it this way:
“God helped me to learn to forgive — the most difficult of all lessons. It didn’t happen in a day and it wasn’t easy. But I finally got it.
Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed.”
In 1996, Kim was invited to a ceremony at the the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington. There, as she learned how “The Wall” had become a pilgrimage site for Americans still dealing with the war’s effect, she met one of the men most responsible for her plight: Captain John Plummer, an American who helped coordinate the air strikes on her village.
Yes, in a most powerful and moving moment, Kim was even able to forgive him. They remain friends to this day.
You can learn more about Kim by listening to her essay here.
Or, if this link goes dead, here is the NPR link.
I suppose Kim’s story strikes me as poignant and beautiful because of its power just on its own. But I suppose it also strikes me because this need to overcome hatred with love, anger with forgiveness, simply continues to grow in our time.
We are in the midst of a new war. There are dozens of Kims out there right now who will, for the foreseeable future be struggling, with their own mounds of hatred, “as high as a mountain.”
It’s that kind of hatred that leads to the modern terrorist, of course. And the violence that begets more violence simply increases unabated in our day. When I think of all the violence and anger running lose in society today, it truly frightens me. In fact, that is the only thing that frightens me about our world.
The solution to all of it, of course, is always before us. The different path –where love overcomes hate, peace overcomes war– is always choice we can make at any time.
But, that solution will always strike us as naive. Yet it is only naive if we fail to realize the hard work it takes, the “long road” that it is. Make no mistake: forgiveness, love, reconciliation is only a path for the truly strong.
So, it may sound naive, but it seems to me Kim Phuc speaks truth in the closing words of her essay. They are about her time, but they are also so terribly relevant to this time too:
“Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.”
If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can’t you?