01.04.2008

Beyond Self Help

It's a rare person who can honestly say they're grateful for life's hardships and even tragedies. It's called Radical Gratitude and Margaret Evans speaks with a man whose whole life vouches for its healing power.

It's a rare person who can honestly say they're gratefulfor life's hardships and even tragedies. It's calledRadical Gratitude and Margaret Evans speaks with a manwhose whole life vouches for its healing power.

At the age of five, Andrew Bienkowski watched hisgrandfather starve himself to death so that his meagrefood ration could sustain his family a little longer.Two weeks later, he, together with his mother, grandmotherand little brother endured the even greater agony offinding his grandfather's body torn apart and scatteredby hungry wolves. The shallow grave they had labouredto dig for him in the frozen ground had proved inadequate.

Such horrors during the family's banishment to thewilderness of Siberia as part of Stalin's paranoid campaignto rid the Soviet state of educated Poles, would havekilled many a weaker soul. And of the more than onemillion Poles who were sent to Siberia, many did die.But Andrew had inherited his grandfather's stoic strengthand determination and now, just a month or two shortof 74, has just published his first book imbued witha powerful, and remarkably gentle, healing energy.

"Radical Gratitude and other life lessons learnedin Siberia" introduces us to the concept that gratitudeshould not be limited to appreciating the good thatis done to us; rather, we should be truly thankful,explains Andrew, "for those things that are painful,unfortunate, difficult because those are the experiencesthat teach us the most and are the most valuable tous".

For Andrew's family, the nightmare began in 1939 whenthe Soviets overran the Polish city of Lvov and enforcedStalin's order to remove those whose education and wealthmade them resistant to communism. His father, an officerin the Polish Army, had been fighting the Nazis whenRussia invaded Poland and was, by that time, being heldas a prisoner of war. Perhaps he never learned the fulldetails of his family's three week train journey ina crowded, filthy cattle wagon to reach their destinationof an isolated village in Siberia. Andrew writes sparinglyof the ordeal during which those passengers who diedwere "lifted by the arms and legs and heaved out(the massive cargo door) and onto the frozen ground".The parallels with the infamous train journeys of theHolocaust are all too clear.

Beyond the cruelty that human beings can inflict uponeach other (because we have all heard these accountsbefore in a different context and seen the searing imagesof suffering), what is most remarkable to the readeris Andrew's sense of caring and empathy for others,as a little boy of five.

Together with his co writer Mary Akers, a prize-winningauthor in her own right, Andrew conveys his realisation,during that journey, that he had "a sense of wantingso badly to help them. ... I believe this first awfulexperience was the beginning of my intense lifelongdesire to help others in need." It also crystallisedan awareness that "we are all connected",and, in order to overcome barriers that may seem otherwiseinsurmountable, we must all help one another. Here,as in many instances throughout this book that is suffusedwith compassion, Andrew draws on the words of an acclaimedhumanitarian, in this case, Albert Schweitzer: "Youmust give some time to your fellow men. Even if it'sa little thing, do something for others - somethingfor which you get no pay but the privilege of doingit."

And, as it becomes clear as I talk with Andrew overthe phone from his home in New Buffalo in upstate NewYork, "only 30 minutes from Canada", thishas become the guiding principle of his life. Afterthe reunited family eventually settled in the UnitedStates in 1948, Andrew studied clinical psychology andbegan a 40 year career working in this field for thestate of New York. Even now, in his retirement, theurge to give time to others is as strong as ever andAndrew spends a day or two each week with terminallyill patients at a local hospice and teaches coursesaimed at helping people reconnect with themselves andwith life.

One senses this book is, itself, part of that altruisticurge, simply a chance to share his lifetime of wisdomgleaned from too much tragedy but, even more, his remarkableresponse to it.

Andrew, married with two adult sons, is the only survivorof that tightly knit family unit, his mother Zosia andyounger brother Jurek both dying well before their time- Zosia as the result of her struggle with typhus contractedduring their exile and Jurek, struck by a car whiletraining for a biathlon. His death, in his mid forties,cut short a brilliant career as a professor of mechanicaland aerospace engineering at Princeton University. Onlythe formidable Babcia, his grandmother, whose strengthand faith in the power of her intuition shine out duringtheir most difficult times in Siberia where starvationwas often only a matter of a day or two away, livedalmost her full measure. "My grandmother probablydeserves more credit than anyone else for our survival,"says Andrew in his soft New England accent with itshint, still, of a European youth. Yet in the midst ofthe Cold War, in the late 1950s, she returned aloneto Poland. "We had no intention of ever settlingpermanently in America," he says. "It wasconsidered to be a temporary arrangement until Polandwas free again. But my grandmother decided that shecouldn't wait and she had to go back home to die."

In a kinder link to his homeland, Andrew has recentlybeen approached by a Polish publisher keen to translatethe book into Polish for a new and unexpected audience.Such stories as his, says Andrew, while new to a Westernaudience, resonate deeply with Polish readers where"every family probably has someone who has gonethrough a similar experience." So, the publisher'sinterest is as surprising as it is welcome.

Or is it? Maybe it's Andrew's advice on how to liveour lives and overcome the growing malaise of depressionand a feeling of "disconnect" that explainthis book's apparent ability to cross the language andculture barrier. As Eastern Europe, along with Chinaand India, becomes wealthier, it seems to be inheritingsome of those problems that have been singularly ourown, here in the self indulgent West!

One of his most compelling statements, at least forme, is that "Powerlessness is the disease of ourtimes." In answer to my question of how we canovercome this feeling, Andrew contrasts our modern habitof seeking professional advice for any problem we mayhave, whether it be personal, legal or financial, witha more traditional self reliance. "This wasn'talways true. I think in the past human beings were muchmore capable and confident in helping each other. Iam trying to reawaken this idea in the reader. We needto realise how much we are capable of helping each other.I think being more responsible and less likely to blameothers would be a good thing." In fact, so centralis this idea to his thinking that the working titleof his book was "Helping Each Other". Thatimage of a handsome well dressed little boy with hisarm around his equally angelic little brother that wesee in the book comes, unbidden, to mind.

And the surprises of Andrew and his book don't endhere. I'm surprised when he states, quite categorically,that "Radical Gratitude" was intended "tobe the opposite of a self help book". Such bookshave been part and parcel of this industry for manyyears and like millions of others I've read my shareand found the best of them uplifting. Andrew explainshis stance this way: "Having worked as a psychologistfor 40 years, I've always been opposed to self helpbooks because they focus on 'me, me, me, me'. I don'tthink it's healthy to become so self centred and soegocentric that you completely lose track that you arepart of a community, part of humanity. My patients,for example, could find that they could make their livesmore meaningful when they were able to focus on otherpeople - helping other people, being more aware of otherpeople, improving relationships with other people, beingmore a part of a human network. And that really is theopposite of self help!" Later, when I've had timeto digest this comment, I think maybe we've been thinkingof different things - yet another "how to"guide which promises transformation in the blink ofan eye is, surely, a very different message from a Deepakor a Dyer that takes the self as just part of the interconnectedwhole as its starting point. And, certainly, I thinkthis idea is gaining credence while the "one weekwonders" languish on the shelves.

"Meaningful" as a word and a concept mattersto Andrew Bienkowski, and it has clearly sustained himthroughout both his childhood and adult life. It's centralto his approach to achieving that most elusive of goals,happiness: "You go up a blind alley when you seekhappiness. To my mind, happiness is a byproduct, nota goal in itself. To the extent that you live a lifethat's meaningful, you do things that are meaningful,that you're feeling that you're part of the communityand you're helping other people, that's what adds meaningto your life. And the byproduct is happiness."

In his own case, it's now his work with terminallyill patients that provides much of the meaning he seeks."People with only a few days to live don't havetime for superficial conversations," he says witha quiet chuckle. While it benefits him, he also recommendswork in a hospice to many of his clients. As well asremoving, even if for a short while, their own preoccupationwith their own problems, with self, it removes theirfear of death, says Andrew. "People are so afraidof death. But if you work in a hospice and you're aroundpeople who are dying, sometimes you may even be sittingthere talking with the person as they are dying, youvery quickly overcome your fear of death. You realisethat death is not frightening, like it is in the movies.Most of the time death is very peaceful."

Interconnectedness is one of his key messages, in lifeand in his book where it earns a chapter all to itself.Once we recognise that even the most aggressive andthreatening of people are only manifesting the fearthey feel within, it becomes much easier for us to overcomethose barriers of mistrust, ignorance and fear for ourown part, Andrew advises. His comment brings to minda powerful image from the book of his grandmother deflectingthe tension of a loaded gun held to her head by a drunkenRussian soldier by praying for him and telling God sheknew he had a good heart. Confused, the soldier leftand, afterward became more respectful and even supportiveduring their term in exile.

Establishing that sense of connection is perhaps easierthan we might think, suggests Andrew. We can pay moreattention to our dreams, for instance, for in cultivatingand valuing them we establish a strong link to our spiritualworld. Meditation is another technique he both teachesand practises for its capacity to heal both body andsoul and give rise to inner wisdom, calmness and creativity.As he writes, "Deep meditation is a form of love- love of self, love of others, and of the world asa whole. And nothing heals better than love."

Being open to the beauty and even cruelty of natureis another strong theme that runs through the book andinto our conversation. Even with starvation beckoning,Andrew can sense the beauty all around him as summercomes to the Siberian steppe. He writes of long sunfilled days, fields of yellow wildflowers, the glorioussweetness of a single overripe strawberry he allowedhimself from the bowl of wild berries he picked fromhis secret cache as a surprise for his family, the howlingof wolves on a clear night as the family slept on theopen plain en route to another camp. As Andrew curleddeeper into his mother's arms, he felt no fear becausewolves are well fed in the summer months. He writes:"That summer evening, listening to the wolves callingto one another, remains one of the most peaceful imagesthat I hold in my heart."

It comes as no surprise, then, to find Andrew stillseeks communion with nature and often, in the summermonths, backpacks for a week at a time with his oldestson, now aged 50. He takes obvious pleasure in his capacityto handle such rigorous exercise, even though wintercamping when the snow can be a metre deep is now beyondhim "and I've given up skiing too".

As our conversation nears an end, I feel I must posethe question that lies at the heart of his understandingof radical gratitude, the belief that has moulded hisentire adult life: "Are you really grateful forbeing banished to Siberia as a little child, starvingand almost dying of dysentery and malaria?"

Andrew's response is unhesitating: "Yes I am gratefulbecause it made me into who I am. It made me into abetter person than I would have been otherwise. Whenwe came out of that experience I very quickly realisedthat to forgive them for what they did to us was essential.I very quickly overcame that experience and it's noteven painful anymore. I could very easily go back toSiberia and meet those people and not feel any animositytowards them." I don't doubt him for a minute.

Radical Gratitude and other life lessons learnedin Siberia
Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers
Allen & Unwin
RRP $22.95

Advertisement