This month’s image: Sam submitted and describes this beautiful view this way: My father has been visiting Mullett Lake since he was a child. Now, every summer, my family and I spend a week there together. Regardless of where we are in the world, we never miss this trip to northern Michigan. If there’s a better place to be in the summer, I haven’t found it.
Now coming from Sam … that says a whole lot. You will see why, in just a moment, as I introduce you to Sam as my guest this month … on The Porch.
An introductory note: Three days before the pandemic lock-down began, Sam Goodwin traveled from St. Louis to my office in Naperville IL on an intentional whim that a mutual friend thought we should meet. I always trust we cross paths with the people we are supposed to meet. Some days it is more apparent than others. And some days it is just downright hard to miss. At the end of our 10-hour day together, I knew Sam not only had a powerful experience to share, but had incredible insights from all of his experiences that many could learn from and share-in. In this year of great uncertainty, it is a joy to share Sam with you today.
A Certainty Unknown — by Sam Goodwin
My curiosity about the world and its people dates back as far as I can remember. In grade 3, I made it to the championship round of my class’s geography bee. My teacher, Ms. Keller, read the final question. “Name the largest and only Portuguese-speaking country on the continent of South America.” For about 10 seconds I visualized the globe next to my bed that my parents had given me, and then replied, “Brazil.” This was the correct answer and earned me a two-night homework pass.
Two decades later, following four years of collegiate ice hockey at Niagara University in upstate New York, I found myself based in Singapore working investor relations for a tech startup. In addition to being thrillingly immersed into the Far East’s fast-paced business environment, Singapore’s strategic location was an ideal launching pad for exploring the local region and beyond.
After filling my time away from work exclusively with travel for more than half a decade, this passion for unique encounters and deeper understanding evolved into a desire to experience every country in the world, something that required careful calculations and planning. As I temporarily reprioritized this “side hustle” as a full-time project and established my blog, I learned that working as an independent travel writer and sharing stories that inspired and shifted the perspective of others was as equally powerful as the first-hand experiences. Many of my best experiences surfaced in unexpected places, including camping at Angel Falls in Venezuela, coaching ice hockey in North Korea and hosting a volleyball camp in Afghanistan.
On May 25th, 2019, while visiting and writing from Syria, local authorities unexpectedly and abruptly stopped me on the street and raised skepticism around my travel motifs.
It was in that moment my freedom was completely taken away.
Following a string of uncontrollably troublesome circumstances, I was detained at the hands of President Assad’s forces. Syria was the 181st country I had traveled to and nothing remotely like this had happened anywhere else in the world.
Only in hindsight do I know that this was only day-one of my 63 days to be held hostage in Syria. I say that I only know that in hindsight, because on that day and each day to follow, I had no idea if it would be my last. My captivity included solitary confinement, federal prisons, a sham trial, blindfolds, endless interrogations and complete uncertainty about the future. My life had spiraled out of control in the most terrifying of ways and there was no rewind or reset button. A “normal” prisoner spends time counting down the days to the end of their sentence.
Hostages count up.
This results in a deeply uncertain and unfathomable situation. I never stopped caring about dying. And with a lot of time to do nothing but think, the list of bad things that I believed could happen to me was never short. Yet, at times I lost the energy to be afraid.
As days turned into weeks … and weeks into months, I questioned whether a resolution would ever emerge. On July 26th, without any anticipation, forewarning or clarity of what was happening, Lebanese Special Forces traveled to Damascus and deported me to Beirut — an act that was facilitated through secret international negotiations between the US, President Assad and Lebanon’s Internal Security. In many ways, the nature and uncertainty of this departure and travel to Beirut was as terrifying as the days of captivity themselves. Two hours later we arrived at a hotel where I was able to take my first real shower and shave in over two months. I was then driven to the office of Lebanon’s Internal Security. As I walked-in, for the first time in 63 days, I felt a glimmer of that freedom and certainty I had grown-up knowing.
My mother and father stood across the room … waiting … to bring me home.
The next day we flew home to the St. Louis airport, arriving to an emotional welcome home that I will never forget and a gratefulness, to be home safely, that I will always remember.
There will be a lot that I will remember … and an uncertainty that will only gain clarity with the gift of time and reflection.
Among many frustrations during this time in Syria, was feeling as though I was wasting time. That I was wasting days of my life. However, reflecting back, this was not the case. I was forced to use my imagination in an unusual and productive way. I developed unique perspectives and deeper understandings – the very things that drove me to travel in the first place. Most importantly, I was provided with an unparalleled opportunity to use prayer to deepen and strengthen my faith. These were crucial to embracing and managing an intense uncertainty.
I often characterize my time in Syria as both the best and worst thing to ever happen to me.
For all of us, I think it’s easy to view the year 2020 — especially coronavirus lockdowns — as a waste of time. It’s understandable to be anxious about the related economic uncertainty. And without a clear pathway to address the national social unrest, it’s impossible to count down the days to a resolution. If only we could travel to New York and do an early drop of the 2021 ball. Yet, what if this is the best AND the worst year we will live. What if this is exactly the type of uncertainty we need to experience in order to grow?
I’ve come to understand and appreciate the “SINE curve of life,” – the never-ending up and down wave. Being at the top is easy. This is when things are going great, and here, it’s important to have humility, awareness and gratitude, among others. However, it’s rare for anything deeply meaningful to emerge from the top. The bottom is what’s important, and I’ve never met someone who hasn’t experienced the lows. These could stem from things like a broken marriage, financial trouble, sadness for a child – or, yes, being held captive in a Syrian prison. We all know what to do when God says yes, but what do we do when God says no — when He has other plans? The way that we embrace challenges and setbacks, the way that we use the bottom of the curve to strengthen our faith and the way that we manage uncertainty and resist derailing during these times – this defines who we become. And from where we begin again.
After taking several months to decompress, I managed to pursue the home stretch of my journey and, on New Year’s Eve 2020, I arrived in country 193/193 – Brazil. I think Ms. Keller would be very proud.
Editor’s note: I encourage you to CLICK HERE to explore Sam’s wonderful travel blog. He brings a whole new appreciation for freedom. So let freedom ring. Wishing you a wonderful FOURTH of JULY weekend. And as always … I would love for you to share your thoughts below.