Good Reading : April 2008
36 goodreading ı APRIL 2008 word of mouth mind body spirit a difficult kind of gratitude Surviving great hardship and trauma can eventually lead us to a place of gratitude. ROSAMUND BURTON explores this possibility through Andrew Bienkowski’s Radical Gratitude which chronicles an extraordinary family history in Siberia. Most people would not consider watching your grandfather starve himself to death so that you and the rest of your family have enough to eat, as something for which to be grateful. But Andrew Bienkowski’s approach to life is different to most people’s. Andrew was born into a family of the Polish intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and held a senior position in the government. His mother spoke three languages.They were educated, cultured and wealthy people. When Poland was taken over by Russia in 1939 the intelligentsia were seen as a threat because their education and wealth made them resistant to communism. Andrew and his family were five of the one million Polish citizens deported to Siberia.They were woken up by soldiers in the middle of the night, given ten minutes to pack, and loaded onto a cattle train. Andrew was six years old at the time and his brother Jurek was three.Their father was an officer in the Polish ar my and was fighting the Germans in the west when Russia invaded Poland from the east. So Andrew and Jurek were deported with their mother and their grandparents. Andrew remembers seeing people dying after they had been shot because they tried to escape being boarded onto the train. He describes how anyone who died on the long journey was lifted out of the carriage when it stopped and left beside the track on the frozen ground. After several weeks Andrew’s family were told to get off the train at a small village in the heart of Siberia.They lived in a very tiny mud hut, had no furniture and went for days with no food at all. As their resources slowly dwindled and no help was forthcoming Andrew’s grandfather realised that the best way he could help his loved ones was to die. Radical Gratitude tells the extraordinary story of Andrew Bienkowski’s time in Siberia and the lessons he has learnt from that era, and also from working as a psychotherapist for forty years. Descriptions of the harrowing hunger and harsh conditions the family experienced are interspersed with stories of the kindness of members of his own family and outsiders in Siberia. He first attempted to write the book over ten years ago and its title was Helping Each Other . ‘But I didn’t like the way it was coming out,’ he recounts. ‘People who read it would say to me that it sounds like a text book or a manual.’ But friends kept encouraging him to work on the book, and eventually he met co-author, Mary Akers, who brought it to life, and to whom Andrew gives the credit for creating it. When asked to explain the title of the book, Andrew says: ‘Regular kind of gratitude is very simple – something good happens to you and you are grateful.That is the easy kind of gratitude. Radical gratitude is being grateful for things that happen to us that are difficult or tragic, because those events in our life are the ones rom which we learn the most and benefit from the most. Andrew still sees the theme of the book as helping ach other. ‘We survived because we were working ogether,’ he recalls. ‘We all contributed.We all worked gether. I can remember even as a six-year old going ut and picking berries and mushrooms and contribut- ing to the survival of the whole family.’ Andrew firmly believes that helping other people makes our lives more meaningful, and in his many years as a psychotherapist he consistently found that people were looking for more meaning in their lives. ‘Many of my patients developed more meaningful lives and were much much happier… Because happiness is not a goal, it’s a by-product. You have to have a meaningful life and then the by-product is happiness,’ he explains. One way he is going to help a lot of people is through his next book, which is about ageing. ‘It’s a common belief that being old is a terrible thing.What I am trying to do in that book is convince the reader that being old is not a terrible thing, it’s actually a very good thing.’ Having lost his mother in 1951 when she was only 37 years old, and his brother who was in his mid-40s when he was struck and killed by a car in 1983, Andrew no doubt appreciates the 73 years that he has lived so far. Not that it sounds as if ageing is having much of an impact on him. His favourite activity is backpacking, and every summer he heads off with his 50-year-old son into the wilderness for a week. ‘That’s when I am happiest,’ he concludes. Radical Gratitude by Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers is published by Allen and Unwin, rrp $22.95.