Recently I came across the remarkable story of Ingrid Betancourt. She is the former candidate for the presidency of Colombia who was recently rescued (with fourteen others) after six years of being held hostage by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). She and her fellow captives endured an incredible ordeal so hellish that it is difficult for me to even imagine. But I find in her response to that ordeal a powerful demonstration of Course in Miracles principles of forgiveness, devotion to the welfare of others, and conviction in the power of God to bring about miracles even in the darkest of times.
Betancourt was kidnapped on February 23, 2002 when she and other political candidates met with FARC for peace talks. So began the nightmare. She and her fellow captives were whisked deep into the Colombian jungle, where they wouldn't see the sky for days at a time. They were constantly blindfolded and moved from one location to another, forced to march up to fifteen miles in a stretch. They were incessantly ravaged by biting insects. They were chained, physically tortured, and humiliated in such brutal ways that she says of her captors, "I think they themselves were disgusted."
She tried to escape five times, actually succeeding in the final attempt but returning because one of her fellow escapees had diabetes and needed treatment. After this final attempt, she was chained by the neck and forced to remain standing for three days. From then on, she was in chains twenty-four hours a day, a solitary woman surrounded by men who had not seen a woman for years. She was sexually abused, an experience so traumatic that she cannot yet even speak of it. In short, in her words, "It was hell. It was hell for the body. It was hell for the soul. It was hell for the mind. Everything was so horrible." Contemplating her experience now, she says that "the worst thing is realizing that…human beings can be so horrible to other human beings."
Betancourt and her fellow captives tried to hold on to their sanity any way they could. She told stories, taught the others French, sewed, wrote, and read books that others passed to her. (At one point, she found a newspaper that to her horror contained a story about her father's funeral; he had died a week after she was captured.) In a place where she couldn't see the sun and it was all too easy to lose her bearings, she said, "The important thing was to fill the day with activities that could be repeated like in a schedule: to give yourself stability in a world of no stability, that was the key." Fortunately, she had an old radio with which she could not only keep up with current events, but also get precious messages from her mother and children.
A devout Roman Catholic, Betancourt also endured by turning to the spirit. Looking at her harrowing experience in retrospect, she now says that "the thing I can give is testimony, of the importance of a spiritual connection with God." During her captivity, she read her Bible. She said her rosary. She practiced prayer and meditation. She turned her mind to God and experienced His personal care for her: "I know that I talk to him, and that he responds." And she also turned to her fellow hostages, giving them strength, hope, and inspiration and receiving it in return. The power of joining together to light each other's way was one of the most significant lessons she drew from the experience: "That's the magic of all things. You can have the dark side of man but you can also plug yourself to light and be an enormous light to others. And I think that's what being spiritual means."
For six long years the hostages suffered and clung to each other for support, having no idea if their ordeal would ever end. But on July 2, they were rescued in a way that felt truly miraculous. A FARC helicopter came to pick up the hostages and transfer them to a new location—or so the rebels on the ground thought. In fact, the Colombian military had tricked them into believing that the transfer was ordered by a FARC commander. By the time the ruse was discovered, the helicopter with the fourteen hostages was safely off the ground and the FARC commander who boarded with them was apprehended.
The hostages, who weren't sure exactly what was going on at first, finally heard the wonderful words they thought they might never hear: "This is Colombian Army, you are free." And the celebration began. Betancourt was overcome with emotion:
I couldn't talk. I screamed….It was a scream that went from the bottom of my stomach. And then I hugged everyone I could hug. I would have hugged anyone at that second. I hugged the one that was beside me, front—I would kiss everybody. It was crazy. It was very intense. We were crying.
So Betancourt's nightmare ended, and a new life began. And it is here, in how she is choosing to respond to what happened to her, that I see Betancourt demonstrating Course principles most powerfully. I see three main aspects to this. First, she is committed to forgiving her captors. When Larry King asked her if she hated the FARC, she emphatically said no. She has spoken instead of how she wants to forgive and forget what her captors did to her, only bringing back her memories of her ordeal for the purpose of processing them and sharing her story with others:
It's like a kind of position I took many years ago, that when I would be released, I wouldn't take out of the jungle any kind of bitterness or any kind of eager to—seek for revenge, anything of that.…The only thing I want is—I pray God to give them his blessing.
The only thing I've settled in my mind is that I want to forgive, and forgiveness comes with forgetting. So I have to do two things. I have to forget in order to find peace in my soul, and be able to forgive. But at the same time, once I've forgiven and forgotten, I will have to bring back memories. Probably they will be filtered by the time, so they won't come with all the pain I feel right now.
This is a truly amazing stance when you consider what she went through. Her FARC captors chained her, tortured her, and degraded her to the point that she says "they themselves were disgusted." If anyone would have a motive for revenge, she would. But instead, she wants to forgive them, and she wants God to give them not the brutal punishment they would seemingly deserve, but a blessing. What a marvelous "extreme example"! I can only hope that I would respond as lovingly under such circumstances.
Second, she is committed to helping others. Above all, she wants to help the many others who are still held hostage in the Colombian jungle by FARC. "For me, it's very, very important—it's very important to ask to all the people that can help us to fight for the release of the ones who are still in the jungle." But her desire to help others extends beyond those who are suffering as she did. Indeed, she says that her experience has shifted her priorities in a fundamental way. She used to have many goals—she may yet run for president of Colombia again—but now "I think that the only thing that remains perhaps is my desire to be there for others and to help." And she calls upon all of us to answer the world's call for help as well: "No matter where you are, you can do beautiful things if you have the disposition, the devotion and the ability to work for those who are suffering, for those who don't have a place in the world." How can we do this? "Love is the key."
Finally, she is a shining example of the Course principle that no matter what has happened to us—even if we have experienced the most brutal degradation imaginable by human standards—we can choose how to respond to it. We can become bitter and see nothing but evil, or we can look past appearances and behold God, love, and miracles. In Betancourt's words:
I never lost my faith. And God was with me from the first day to the end of this horrible experience. And He's still with me. And I pray every day.…I mean, for me it was a miracle.
Sometimes people think that miracles are something that happens to others, and very seldom. I think that they happen to everybody, but we just don't understand what's happening to us and we prefer to talk about coincidence. We should give the credit to God.
Miracles happen to everybody. They happened to Ingrid Betancourt. They can happen to you and me. They are ready and waiting to come to us and through us if we will turn away from anger and hate, open our minds and hearts to God, and choose to bless those who seem to persecute us. What else but this does A Course in Miracles want to teach us?