There are tough times … and there are tough times.
Jessica Buchanan was working as a humanitarian aid worker in 2011 when she was kidnapped by Somali land pirates and held outside in the scrub desert for 93 days before being rescued by Navy SEALs. She shared the lessons she learned and offered advice during the NCSL Base Camp 2020 finale, “Salute to Legislative Staff: From Trauma to Triumph—Building Resilience in Trying Times.”
Buchanan remembers every single detail of her ordeal: the blazing hot sun, the taste of the rice she was fed, the smell of the sweat of the men who kidnapped her. Early on, she realized, “No matter how this turns out, I know my life will change forever. This is bad. I had no frame of reference.”
That first day, after walking through the desert, Buchanan and Poul Thisted, the colleague with whom she was kidnapped were told to stop and get down on their knees. Buchanan thought they were going to be shot and describes it as “the single most terrifying moment of my life.” Instead, they were told to sleep.
After enduring burning hot days, freezing cold nights, worry about being raped and not being able to make any decisions for herself, Buchanan realized, “Everything I know about life is different. I am no longer Jessica Buchanan, humanitarian, wife, daughter. I am simply a commodity. I am an American dollar sign that needs to be kept alive long enough for these men to be paid.
“I realized I have a job to do. It is only, simply to survive.”
At some point, Buchanan began to view her situation in philosophical terms. She began to think about change and what that means for one’s life. “The first thing I learned is that change is the author of our stories. In my darkest moments, I was saying to myself, this is just a chapter in the story of my life.”
Then she had an epiphany: “Change doesn’t just want to write a chapter, it wants to write the entire book about how we tell that story. But change does not get to have the final say—we do. Change doesn’t ask our permission, but it requires a response.”
She began to realize the unique qualities of her situation—that she had time and solitude—and how she would use them.
“Maybe this is my chance,” she thought. “Maybe I can sit under this tree and really dig into what my purpose is.”
So she “got organized” and made a work plan for herself, deciding to remember everything that had happened in her 32 years and chart a course for moving forward.
Still, each day was a test. Inexplicably one afternoon, she and Thistedd, who were normally prohibited from speaking to one another, were allowed to sit on a blanket together. Buchanan had been “freaking out” that day and she screamed, “How long is this thing going to take?”
“Normally, he would ignore me. But he said something that forever shaped the way I will view hardship and pain in my life: ‘Jessica, it will take the time it needs to take—no more, no less.’”
Buchanan emphasized that nothing last forever—"not the good, not the bad, not the pandemic, not the moments you’re at the top of your game.” She pointed out that even though things are changing at lightning speed, we need to take heed that we are here, surviving.
Speaking to the audience of mostly legislative staffers, she said, “You’ve adapted. You’ve managed to pivot. You’ve proven over and over again how committed you are, serving your communities, serving your states. You have committed to doing the only thing that really truly matters, and that is collaborating with change so that you can survive.”
Buchanan left the audience with a couple of questions—and answers: “How is change writing the book that is you? Is it just a chapter or will it write the whole thing? You have the final say, you get to decide. Change is an invitation. …. It took me gutting it out in a Somali desert to realize it. Change always was and always will be my proof that I am very much still alive.”
Jane Carroll Andrade is a program director in NCSL’s Communications division.
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