Sunday, February 28, 2016

Song of Survival

I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well
With the way I'm feeling
There's a symphony that I hear in your heart
Set's my head a reeling
--The Who

Yesterday I went to see Song of Survival, a play about women imprisoned during WWII in Southeast Asia by the Japanese. The performance was put on by my niece's high school. My niece played the role of Sylvia and had one of the larger speaking parts.

The play tells the story of how hundreds of women coped with years of captivity under conditions of extreme scarcity. Scarcity, of course, is the fallback condition of the planet. When people are free to improve their situation, however, they are prone to do so thru voluntary cooperation--i.e., thru production and trade.

By definition, confinement in prison restricts that freedom. This was particularly so for these women because their Japanese captors severely limited access to resources that would help the ladies improve their situation. For example, Red Cross packages containing food and medicine were confiscated by the prison guards.

Although starvation and disease claimed hundreds lives, many women endured years of these conditions until the war ended in the summer of 1945. How did they do it?

Well, despite their restricted environment, they still managed to engage in production and trade.

They traded physical goods. Although economic resources were in extremely short supply, the women still found opportunities for mutual exchange. A piece of cloth for some grass tea. Tidbits of food for some string or ribbon. Although we would surely consider most of what was traded as 'worthless,' these women clearly found such exchange valuable.

More importantly, the women traded intangible 'goods' such as encouragement and optimism. They comforted each other. They told each other that they would make it. That the war would end soon. And they sang to each other. Beautiful songs and performances that even won gratitude from some of their captors. Absent being able to exchange sources of psychic income, it seems unlikely that most would have endured.

The story nicely demonstrates how markets spontaneously arise even in the harshest of circumstances to the mutual benefit of those involved.

Economic lessons aside, the feeling that overcame me during the performance was one of desperation. I desperately wanted to help the women escape. I wanted to pass them my knife, take out some guards, blow a hole thru the prison fence. My mind raced to devise ways get those ladies out of there so that they could be free.

Meanwhile, they were getting sick and dying left and right. I hated that feeling because I was unable to help them. When the end of the war was announced, I was thankful that the theater was dark so that no one could see my tears.

I must also admit that I was in awe of my niece up on stage. Speaking and moving gracefully, singing beautifully. So grown up. As did characters in the play, I found myself leaning on past memories while navigating the present.

She was wonderful as was the entire experience.

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