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Learning from true legends and extreme experiences

Last month I had the privilege of sharing a speaking platform with two inspirational men. One was retired Air Commodore Charles Clarke (2nd from right above), a 91 year old World War 2 Prisoner of War. Charles was a POW in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape and was part of the Long March in the extreme winter months of 1944-45. The second was the broadcaster and author John McCarthy (far right above) who, as many of you will remember, was held hostage in Lebanon for over five years from 1986 to 1991. As you can imagine they both had fascinating stories to tell. Listening to their experiences there were a number of themes that struck me.

Humour was important in the extreme experiences of both of these men. In his fascinating paper on resilience and humour in the first world war, Edward Madigan (2013) quotes Lord John Moran on the importance of humour to British soldiers on the Western Front:

“Only humour helped. Humour that made a mock of life and scoffed at our own frailty. Humour that touched everything with ridicule and had taken the bite out of the last thing, death. It was a working philosophy that carried us through the day, a kind of detachment from the ‘insubstantial pageant of the world”

(Lord Moran, quoted by Madigan 2013).

Humour is often linked with psychological resilience (Southwick and Charney, 2012). When faced with particularly challenging or tough experiences it seems to play a role in disconnecting people from the reality of their circumstances. These moments can be fleeting but they can be important in providing an emotional counter-balance to the inevitable negative aspects of extreme experiences.

I was also struck by the extent to which both Charles and John bore a remarkable lack of malice and resentment towards their captors. Some of the people who held them were malicious and cruel but they seemed to be very much in the minority. Both men, in their different ways, spoke about the need not to demonise and to continue to see the human beings behind the captor identity. They were also able to place what had happened to them in the context of broader forces and events. For example, John McCarthy has no generalised antipathy towards Islam and in fact has continued to develop his understanding of the socio-political reality in Lebanon and the wider region.

The other obviously crucial aspect of their time in captivity were the relationships they had. For John his relationship with his fellow hostage Brian Keenan was probably the main contributor to his psychological survival. Two very different men in terms of background and temperament they forged a relationship closer than most people experience in their lifetime. The closeness was partially a consequence of their physical 24/7 proximity for over four years, but also a shared recognition of a dependency on each other for their survival. It’s fascinating to read their independent accounts of their time together[1]. For Charles Clarke it was less about an intense one-to-one relationship and more about adjusting to a range of different people. Therefore, broader interpersonal adaptability was more important than the capacity to build a strong relationship with one individual. In fact Charles was quite scathing of The Great Escape movie in terms of the apparent lack of accent diversity amongst the British soldiers - he observed that it suggested they were all southern English public school educated officers!

There is an area of psychological research than seeks to understand and develop the capacity for psychological survival facing extreme circumstances. This goes under the banner of research on ICE (Isolated, Confined, Extreme) environments. Rather than suggesting there is a single personality type that is more resilient than others in such conditions it reveals that there are three main groups of factors that determine adaptation and interactions which in turn predict wellbeing and performance (Sandal et al., 2006). These are:-

  • Physical conditions (e.g. temperature, noise, dark-light cycle)

  • Crew / group characteristics (group size, heterogeneity, individual attributes including background and personality)

  • Mission attributes (tasks, duration, danger, contact with outside world)

So it’s doesn’t really appear to be the case that we can always predict who is most likely to survive an extreme experience from their personality or history. That does not mean that personality has no impact but rather that it is the interaction between this and specific aspects in the context of the experience which ultimately determine who best survives and perhaps even thrives.

Lastly, listening to people like Charles Clarke and John McCarthy talk about the trials they faced leaves you with a renewed sense of perspective and optimism. Perspective in terms of placing some of our more mundane problems in context – and we can all use that from time to time. The optimism is based on the realisation that very different people can ultimately cope with very tough experiences and emerge mainly intact and often stronger.

If you want to hear John McCarthy speak, and I strongly recommend that you do so, he will be appearing at the 2015 Good Day At Work Conference.


Madigan, E. (2013) ‘Sticking to a Hateful Task’: Resilience, Humour, and British Understandings of Combatant Courage, 1914–1918. War in History 20(1) 76 –98.

Sandal, G. M., Leon,G.R. and Palinkas, L. (2006) Human challenges in polar and space environments. Rev Environ Sci Biotechnol (2006) 5:281–296.

Southwick, S.M. and Charney, D.S. (2012) Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press.

[1] John McCarthy’s account is in his book (written with Jill Morrell) Some Other Rainbow, and Brian Keenan’s in An Evil Cradling.

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