Sidney Rittenberg was an American journalist and scholar. He was sent to China during the Second World War as a Chinese linguist and when the war ended, he chose to stay in the country. As a committed Socialist, he was sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cause. He knew Chairman Mao personally, as well as many of the other high-ranking leaders but just as Mao was a friend, he was also Rittenberg’s jailor. At various points, over the coming years, as suspicions grew about foreigners, Sidney fell afoul of the CCP and was imprisoned in solitary confinement not just once but twice, for a total period of 16 years.
During Rittenberg’s first imprisonment, for the initial 12 months, he was kept in a completely dark room. His incarceration continued for a further five years before he was finally released. Through his understanding of human nature and empathy with the prison guards’ cause as well as their role, he built relationships with them and managed to persuade them to provide him with books to read and a candle. During these years, poetry was a great comfort to Rittenberg.
Imprisoned for a second time due to the CCP’s further paranoia about foreigners being spies and them getting too close to high ranking leaders, Rittenberg was imprisoned yet again with his solitary confinement lasting nine years. Throughout his incarceration, Rittenberg said that it was the love for his wife – his ‘dream girl’ Wang Yulin and his four children, that was a source of enormous strength and kept him going all those years. They were his sense of purpose for survival.
Eye of the Tiger
Sidney Rittenberg had the mindset of a survivor. To be put into solitary confinement, deprived of light and human contact, is nothing less than soul destroying, especially if you have done nothing but fight for a cause that you believe in, yet only to find your fellow comrades turn on you. Rittenberg did not let this fact defeat him; in fact, it helped him because he believes that it didn’t mean they were bad, just that they had got Sidney’s intentions wrong.
To hear Rittenburg talk about his experiences of living and being imprisoned in China, it belies the trauma he lived through. He has spoken almost with affection about his second home. Sidney Rittenberg said that he had a very strong belief in the power of human reason to learn how to control negative emotions and moods in any circumstances and that you should never, ever give up – this coming from a man who lived for a total of 16 years in the grim circumstances of solitary confinement. Rittenberg spoke of how in that situation, you are alone, yet not alone – sitting across from you, watching you, is your own potential madness and you know it’s either you or him. Yet Rittenberg had such presence of mind, such an unfailing sense of self-awareness and strength, that he refused to let himself go under.
I am in no way drawing parallels to the current global situation and Sidney Rittenberg’s experiences of solitary confinement, but there are people right now who are feeling trapped, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe they are needing to continuously shield, maybe they live alone and are in an area where Lockdown has been imposed again, or, there are those feeling like they are going to go mad because of the Groundhog Day feeling that nothing is changing, that every day is the same old, same old.
Freedom of choice
Dare I say it, but Rittenberg was not particularly special, no more special than you or I, so how did he survive, without letting the mad version of himself take control?
Rittenberg knew he had the upper hand, that he had control over the nature of his thoughts and that he could run his brain, rather than to allow it to run him. And going mad under those circumstances would be perfectly normal. At the beginning of his imprisonment, he was interrogated every day but gradually, that petered out and he was given two pills, three times a day which he says were probably amphetamines, which keep you from sleeping, the purpose being that lack of sleep would eventually break him down so that he would confess. But he had nothing to confess to, which he says in a TEDx interview, made it kind of awkward. Humour about a dire situation! Subsequently, he said he broke down and lived a nightmare existence with hallucinations for around three to four months but even in that situation, he knew that wasn’t him, that he was sick. And he fought with this psychological nightmare. Even in that nightmare, he knew there were one of two paths he could take – and the choice to push through with thoughts of survival won out. Just as Viktor Frankl spoke about in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. This book told of his experiences of being captured and taken to several concentration camps during the Second World War. As a neurologist and psychiatrist, Frankl was a keen observer of behaviour and watched with interest how prisoners and guards reacted in those most horrific of circumstances. He made many profound observations, but one is particularly pertinent here, that even when everything is taken from us, we still have the ability to choose our attitude:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.“
Frankl believed that it was not the horror of the camp circumstances that caused each prisoner’s individual behaviour, because if that were the case, everyone would react the same. No, it was a man’s choice as to how he responded because we get to choose how to react to any given thought, emotion or set of circumstances:
“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis, it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner-decision and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally then, any man can, under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.”
Frankl surmised that it was those prisoners who knew they had the freedom to choose how they responded to their circumstances, that survived their incarceration.
It’s OK not to be OK but it’s not OK to stay that way
We can of course always find examples of those who have faced more horrendous circumstances than the one we are finding upsetting, challenging or frustrating, but that doesn’t negate how we are feeling because it is all relative. However, what we can perhaps do is draw strength and inspiration from their experiences, learnings and teachings. The Winning Edge is not about being positive all the time and telling yourself that ‘worse things happen at sea’. Those kind of platitudes, are less than helpful. However, it is knowing that the only person who can get you out of a less than helpful headspace is you and there are times, unlike those of Rittenburg and Frankl, when perhaps you need to getoveryourself.com.
Sidney Rittenberg’s story is a compelling testament to the power of the human mind – that if we adopt an apposite mindset, there is no telling what we are able to cope with and what situation we can pull ourselves through.
Think about one thing you can do today which helps you to feel empowered. Perhaps journaling – the act of writing down your thoughts is like transferring them from your head to somewhere else, or at least that they may feel clearer when written out and you can go back and look at them in a day or so, perhaps with a clearer head that will help you to find a solution. Think of an assumptive affirmation which you can repeat to yourself to build thoughts that will help you; or visualising a stronger more confident you. Pick one that will help you to move forward with your thoughts, to give you strength.
The last word from Sidney: “You only got one life; you can’t give up and you can’t let them (it) ruin your life.”
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