How I was forced to change my view of life at an early age
I grew up in Togo, a former French colony and small country on the coast of West Africa, sandwiched between Benin and Ghana. I grew up in the 80’s, when life was easy and more laidback than it is today. To be honest, life at home was not enjoyable in general because my parents were on the strict side; all that mattered to them were school grades and daily chores. But I also admit that there were times of pure joy when the school year was over. Not only was I glad that I didn’t have to get up early to do chores and be ready for school, (and was able to sleep in), but I also spent time with my friends on various activities; we would spend most of the day playing soccer in the dirt, hunting for birds, wild mice, and squirrels, and seeking out mango trees around the neighborhood then competing with my friends to see who was the most skilled at causing mangoes to drop from the tree using a slingshot.
Yearning for freedom under the longstanding rule of dictatorship
In the early part of the 1990’s, I was a very young teenager (13 or 14), in middle school when political upheaval erupted in the country. People took to the streets to demand an end to decades of dictatorship and the establishment of democracy. Tensions rose quickly between the regime in place, and the opposition. The workforce of the country launched an open-ended strike to force the reigning power to bow to its demands. Businesses closed their doors, and schools were shut down. The whole country was economically on its knees. Public demonstrations became a daily occurrence. Inevitably, riots ensued and the armed forces opened fire on civilians. Lives were lost and people were injured. The savage acts of using the army against its own people reached a new level when armed servicemen were ordered to break into the homes of anyone suspected of supporting the opposition and end their lives. Whole neighborhoods were targeted for their suspected sympathy to the opposition. There were accounts of barbaric acts I won’t describe here.
The fateful day
It was in the midst of this turmoil that I had a disturbing encounter with the chief of security for the (then) president of the country. It began as just another day during the drawn-out strike that severely afflicted the country. I lived in an area of the city that was quiet and spared from the riots and demonstrations. However, school was suspended for safety’s sake. I have to admit that I was pretty happy about spending more days hanging out with my friends and truly having the time of my life. Until that day. My dad had sent my younger brother and I to go buy some ice, as we did at least once a day. Ice water was the crux of getting some relief from the 90-degree weather when there was no access to air conditioning.
As we walked though the deserted streets of the neighborhood, my brother and I played a game of hide and seek. I would run ahead and find a hiding spot along the way in the bushes covering either side of the road, or in one the houses under construction scattered along our path. Once he found me, it would be his turn to find a hiding spot. At the halfway point to our destination, it was my turn to hide and my brother—who couldn’t find me—continued walking. I came out of my hiding spot, laughing out loud as I crossed the street. At the same moment, I saw a car make a turn onto the street and slow down as it approached me. There was not another soul around. The car came to a complete stop next to me. The driver’s side window came down, and I was face to face with the president’s chief of security. I only recognized him because I often saw him on television, but always in the vicinity of the head of state. His first question to me was “What are you laughing about?” He apparently assumed I was laughing at him in the context of the political unrest.
I saw the hand gun sitting right next to him
Before I could answer, I saw him place his palm on the hand gun sitting prominently between him and the passenger seat. With a tone suggesting irritation and annoyance, and the fierce, alert eyes of an animal ready to attack, he said to me “I can take you out right now and no one will have something to say about it.” I froze as I saw his hand move again, this time from the gun to his lap. I don’t recall what went through my mind, but the next thing I heard was him order me not to dare step onto that street anymore. Then he drove off. Still in shock from what had just happened, I quickly crossed the street and hid in a vacant building under construction. I was in fear for my life and thought he may change his mind and come back to do what he first meant to; shoot me down. For the next 30 minutes, I was overtaken by intense fear with uncontrolled tremors and chills. Finally, I got the courage to walk back home and I made up a reason why my younger brother arrived home before me. I never told my parents or siblings what had happened, now more than 25 years later.
That was a pivotal day in my life as a young teenage boy, and pushed me on a journey toward understanding my purpose in life. These are the things I discovered:
Live daily taking conscious actions that support your values, or else you live a life that is conditioned by other people, things, and organizations. @komsterinc (Click to Tweet!)
Lessons I understood very young:
1. Life is a gift. It sounds cliché because we hear it often. But it had a larger impact in the mind of a young teenage boy that fateful day. I still had a long life ahead of me and time, I hoped, to discover what I wanted out of life and to pursue it. After all, I was only 13 or 14 and thought I was invincible. In the immediate aftermath of the encounter, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the meaning of my life. It could be taken away in an instant. It’s something I knew consciously of course, but my awareness of it rose to another level. Because of that experience, I strive to live every day doing things that are the most important to me.
2. Life is meant to be enjoyed. In the days that followed the encounter, I lived in sheer terror that the chief of the secret service may come back looking for me or my family. After all, he lived in the neighborhood, was well known in the community, and because of his position, the rule of law did not apply to him. Looking back on the events, I now know that I suffered a form of post traumatic stress. I was afraid of leaving the house, and whenever I did, I was constantly watching my surroundings. I had stopped spending time with my friends but I still had to complete all my chores. My life was reduced to fear and work. This became my existence for a couple of months until I realized that I was no longer enjoying anything like I used to. I asked myself where the balance and enjoyment was. The question motivated me to renew my interest in fun activities. Today, I have a “fun to-do list” and I am always making sure those boxes are checked.
3. My life has meaning and I have a reason to exist. If that man had shot me, I know I would have laid there on the street and died without any chance of receiving help. Because there was no one around, and people were barricaded in their homes, afraid of the army forces. There would not have been any consequences for him, just as he threatened. Being that close to losing my life, I reflected on the experience for years after that, and one thought kept coming up; there is a reason I was given a chance to continue living my life. I didn’t have a definitive rationale why, or a way to access the answer. All I knew was, there was something for me to discover about myself. I have learned a lot about who I am and there is much more to discover. We are so much deeper and more complex than we feel comfortable admitting aloud, I think.
Although we often see the most powerful experiences of our lives through the lens of positive or negative, which is certainly understandable due to the emotions that are generated in the moment, we have the ability to change the meaning and impact of any event to either empower or disempower us. That day on a silent street with my mind on pause, I could have chosen to hide for a year or longer, or to bury the fear. Though traumatic things happen, my will for life and betterment has been stronger because there is a meaning to life even in the darkest moments, as Victor Frankl, most eloquently put it in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: “Nothing in the world would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Komi Agbodzie, CRNA, Mindset & Body Coach, was born and raised in Togo (West Africa), earned a Bachelor degree in agricultural engineering in Morocco before moving to the United States. His focus then shifted to the health and he went on to earn another Bachelor in Nursing followed by a Masters Degree in Anesthesia. He is currently in clinical practice in Oklahoma. Komi is passionate about mindset, health and resilience. In his spare time he helps people in high stress careers craft a body and mind that remain resilient and healthy.
Image courtesy of Lukas Bornhauser.