Are heroes born or made? Are some people marked from early life as possessing the capacity to act in ways that seem almost superhuman? Or could it be the case that ordinary people placed in extreme situations may find themselves able to summon up vast inner resources they didn’t know they had? These were the questions that went through my mind as I watched a video recommended by a friend as “amazing” but with the warning: “Don’t see it before going to bed.” The 16-minute clip was a TED-format talk organized by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and delivered in May of this year by Kay Wilson.
IN 2010, the British-born Wilson, a licensed Israeli tour guide, was walking in the Jerusalem Forest with her American friend and client Kristine Luken when they were confronted by two Palestinian men with machetes in their hands and murder on their minds.
The women were gagged and bound, followed by, in Wilson’s words, “half an hour of unadulterated fear” as her friend was hacked to death close by and she herself stabbed repeatedly and with such force that “I could hear my bones crunch… and my flesh rip.”
Detailing the attack in a matter-of-fact way – with, incredibly, flashes of humor – Wilson recounts: “They scream ‘Allahu akbar!’ my Christian friend Kristine cries ‘Jesus, help me!’ and I hear my own pathetic whimper of ‘Shema Yisrael....’” Her only chance of survival was to play dead, which she did – even when one of the men returned and “verified the kill” by plunging a knife into her chest, missing her heart by four millimeters.
“I didn’t know whether I was in heaven or hell,” Wilson says, quipping “but I knew I wasn’t in hell because I didn’t hear any country music.”
NOW BEGAN the second stage of Wilson’s heroism, starting with the words that supplied her with the title of her talk: “Step by step.”
Unbelievably, with six snapped ribs, 30 fractures in her rib cage, a punctured lung and a crushed sternum; with a broken shoulder blade and dislocated shoulder, with 13 machete wounds in her lungs and diaphragm, she struggled to her feet.
“Step by step, one foot in front of the other, very slowly,” she began to walk, listening to the twigs snapping under her feet, the wind rustling through the trees and the other, manifold sounds of the forest, overwhelmed by grief and the certainty that she was walking to her grave and would never again hear birdsong, the hum of bees or the laughter of children.
“In that state, bound, gagged, barefoot, I walked step-by-step, uphill, for over a mile,” until she found help and a speedy transfer to medical care, followed by nearly four years of physical rehabilitation and trauma therapy.
Noting that it was an Arab-Israeli surgeon who saved her life, Wilson describes the “microcosm of conflict but also of compassion” that is Israel, “Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Druse” coming to show their support for her and their abhorrence of such a heinous crime.
Wilson talks about having to manage her own rage over what happened to her, as well as her survivor’s guilt and the loss of her innocence, anonymity and a slew of other basic perspectives people take for granted.
BUT IN what could be termed the third stage of her heroism, she resolves not to abandon herself to perpetual victimhood.
“I do not forgive, and I cannot forget,” she declares.
“But I will not and cannot afford to live the rest of my life in hatred or fear.” To liberate herself from that darkness, she says, she has “to go back to that long, lonely mile walk through the forest and remember my lungs filling with blood, the sound of death.”
She remains aware “that then, as now... each step, each breath, could be my last. I have to recall the things I was grieving [over] that I would never see again, because it’s those things in life which are important.”
Wilson says it’s those step-by-step choices she makes, moment by moment – “to see the setting sun and not the silhouette of the machete, to listen out for the songs of the birds and not just hear the whimper of my friend” – that have enabled her, “a survivor of Arab, Islamist and Palestinian terrorism,” to reach out to an Arab teen threatened by his own community; to go and stay with a Muslim friend in Egypt, and to help a Palestinian friend make the contacts necessary to start a small business.
She says her Palestinian friend knows, as she does, that “to be shackled in individual or collective victimhood is not helpful, kind, true or moral.
“I’ve learnt,” she concludes, to a standing ovation, “that life is step by step, living in the moment, engaging in senseless, random acts of kindness....It’s acknowledging the past but embracing the now… living with the acute awareness and profound knowledge that every single breath, and every single step, is nothing less than a miracle.”
WILSON’S TALK (type “Kay Wilson ted” into YouTube), like the woman herself, is well worth watching even after reading this column, despite her graphic descriptions and, indeed, partly because of them. One reaches the end stunned by her ability to manifest this kind of strength after what she has gone through.
Yet that isn’t chiefly why I’ve written about her. I chose to do so because of my conviction that she has touched on some of the best lessons for living and dealing with life’s challenges. They may not be original, but many of life’s best lessons aren’t, and she drives them home.
Contemplating any difficult goal in its enormity can be daunting enough to deter our trying to achieve it, like gazing helplessly up a huge mountain whose summit is somewhere in the clouds.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” wrote the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu.
It’s that first step which is vital. A man looked sad and dejected as he confided to his friend that he had squandered his lifelong dream. He had always wanted to be a doctor but he was already 40, and if he started his medical studies only now, by the time he completed them, six years hence, he’d already be 46.
“If you don’t start studying now,” the friend commented, “in six years’ time, you’ll still be 46.”
As I watch my small grandson glorying in his world moment by moment, fascinated by everything around him, pushing himself tirelessly from crawling to standing to soon-be-walking, literally step-by-step, his wonder, perseverance and focus on the moment are an ever-present symbol of the attitude Wilson’s example is urging us to adopt.
But my favorite illustration of step-by-step comes from Canadian novelist Anne Lamott, who recorded an episode involving her older brother when he was 10 years old. He “was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day... [H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.
“Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’” (From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 1994).
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