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choice and red lipstick and why it should be celebrated.

May 22, 2011

I don’t want this to be a long post that goes on and on because really the point i am trying to make is very simple and to the point.

Some months ago during a meeting at work we were as a work force asked to do something none of us wanted to do and something which we felt was not detailed in the job role we signed up for. After much toing and froing and outlining why we thought we should not do it and why our managers thought we should one of my fellow workers remarked ‘well we are just going to have to get on with it and do it, we have no choice‘. At which I exclaimed ‘we always have a choice, to take away choice means we live under a dictatorship and tyranny which I am not willing to do’.

Yes this was partly due to me finding it difficult to be told what to do by somebody else, in my view it is solely my life so I will make the choice of what I do with it and everybody has the right to this.

However, I realise I live within a society and as such my choices as an individual are limited to the constraints and boundaries put in place by that society that I live in or choose to live in.

However, ultimately I have a choice….I choose to live in the society I live and it’s when that choice or my capacity to make any kind of choice is taken away from me that I cease in my eyes to be a human being.

No matter what things happen to us in life….whether we lived in a ‘1984’ style-state controlled society where our individual choices are replaced with commands to live in accordance with what is best for ‘the party’ or ‘collective’, our biggest and most fundamental right to choose whether we live or die remains, nobody and no situation can ever take that away from us. This, to me is the greatest gift to human kind…our right to choose how we live, what to wear, where to go, what we believe, what type of person to be, what we aim to do. When our right to choose is taken away we become shells of what we should be.

There is an extraordinary diary entry written in 1946 by Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin which demonstrates the point perfectly;

Gonin was part of a group of British soldiers sent to liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War. I am sure everybody now has their own terrible image of what a concentration camp under the Nazis must have been like: they were death and work camps set up for the segregation and killing of groups of people, they lacked life and colour in every way possible, they were human factories void of light inhabited by skeletons who had lost their flesh and with it their basic human rights. Full of shadows and despair, the small, low military style buidlings echoed the human misery it’s walls observed day in day out.

They were places where hope was lost and never given back.

 Gonin describes it as ‘a bare wilderness, bare as a chicken run’ (except chicken’s were treated better).

Upon entering Beslen his despair at what he faced is summed up in these words  One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.’

Despite the soul-destroying task ahead of them, Gonin and the other British soldiers began helping those who could still be helped with food, drink and medical care. However, these seemingly crucial things paled into insignificance with the arrival of a box of red lipstick. Gonin explains the experience best in his own words…

‘it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm’

The red lipstick gave these women their identity back, they were more than the nameless mass that Beslen had made them believe they were. 

With the strike of red lipstick upon their parched and withered lips they morphed from wandering, aimless, shadows into purposeful individuals that had a right to live in the way they wanted to live. 

The choice to ‘be’ was given back to them, in the act of putting red lipstick on they chose to embrace life again and as a result inherited all the future choices they would make as human beings.

When I first heard this story it struck me deeply…there are things we need beyond the basic needs of survival, we need to feel ‘we’ are ‘I’ and that we have the right to choose the way we live our life. 

Now when I put red lipstick on I remember this story and smile that once red lipstick literally saved lives, I celebrate being an individual and feel grateful beyond belief that I am lucky enough to live with choice.

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