Virginia Hall was an American citizen. She had a prosthetic leg (which she got in a hunting accident). And, if her mother had her way, Hall would have made a doting wife and parent. Yet through a series of twists and turns, she found herself as a British spy living in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.
Through her efforts, Hall formed a French revolutionary network, masterminded large-scale jailbreaks for her captured companions, and played an invaluable role in gathering British intel.
And that was only in the first couple years of her service.
She put her life at risk time and again. All in the name of freedom for a country that wasn’t hers (France) and for a military she couldn’t call her own (England). Still, there she was, in the thick of the action, fighting against the Nazis with expert-level cunning.
However random Hall’s deployment may seem, her enlisting was no accident.
It was a deliberate action on her part. She had an adventurous nature. She went to several universities all across the globe and disliked the concept of the stay-at-home wife, wanting more for herself.
Upon completion of school, Hall worked for a number of US embassies. They didn’t recognize her potential though and, after many failed attempts to gain more responsibility, she parted ways. Eventually, she ended up joining a new branch of the British military. An espionage unit geared towards sabotaging Nazi forces occupying France.
She jumped on the opportunity.
What made her do it?
The work was understandably stressful. She was one of the first spies in her service to make their way into France and was tasked with building everything from the ground up. Yet she seemed to do it with ease. Even when her life was at risk, she chose to stay.
Similarly, she chose to stay even when she was passed up for promotion several times.
Why though? Why did Hall willingly put herself in so brutal a situation? She could have easily gone home. After all, she enlisted before the US had even entered the war. Why had she stayed after being refused the rank she deserved? She surely could have gotten a safer job elsewhere. Why didn’t she leave when rations got low and she felt isolated and alone? No one was forcing her to be there.
However, in A Woman of No Importance, author Sonia Purnell shows that Virginia Hall was all too willing to make the sacrifice.
Judging the volunteer
When I was around 20 years old, I read the book For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. If memory serves, the fictional story follows a volunteer recruit in the Spanish Civil War. He ultimately ends up fighting and *spoiler alert* dying for the cause.
It was a good story, but I still remember feeling baffled by it.
I pondered over why someone would willingly put themselves in so violent a situation. One where, in the best possible case, he would walk away with physical and mental scars. It perplexed me. And I found myself judging the character and those like him. Clearly, I thought, they just needed a purpose and anything would suffice. I was partially right in that assessment.
I was accurate in assuming an individual’s need for fulfillment, but wrong about the judgment I prescribed.
The power of purpose
Nearly a decade later, I face a similar story. Though this time, the person, and the stakes, are real.
Virginia Hall voluntarily entered a war zone. She could have done anything, but she chose that. Why? What was her reason? Her love of France was surely part of it. So too was her love of adventure. But more than anything else, she got fulfillment from her work. Her job gave her meaning, purpose. When paranoia ran high and her efforts seemed hopeless, it was this fulfillment that kept her going.
And that’s something we each can aspire to.
We all face trials in life. We all face uncertainty and doubt. And it’s in those low points that meaning becomes so powerful. Because it’s meaning that keeps you going. It’s fulfillment that urges you forward, even when your legs feel tired and you want to take a nap. It’s purpose that gets you out of bed to a day full of strife and challenge.
Virginia Hall fought because it fulfilled her.
Put yourself in their shoes
I judged Hemingway’s character. I observed that the war gave him fulfillment, but assumed it was only because he had nothing else going on in his life. But that’s not fair to say. Nor was it fair of me to be so judgemental.
After all, a life of fulfillment is what we all want.
Can we really judge somewhere for pursuing a meaningful life? I don’t think so. Rather, those are the kinds of people that should be celebrated. Not necessarily because of their merits – either real or fictional – but because of their purpose. Because of their pursuit of something that fills them up.
I may not derive meaning from war games, but that’s not to say someone else won’t. So instead of judging, I’m better off seeing life through their lens of fulfillment.
Move forward with fulfillment
Virginia Hall found fulfillment in what she did. Was she insane to pursue it? — Ah, be careful. Because that question alone will get you judging. The better question is, did she derive meaning from it? The answer to that question is a resounding yes.
In your life, it is easy to let the judgments of others guide you. To listen to the voices that say you will never make it or that your idea is terrible.
Often those are voices of people that love you and want the best for you. However, they are viewing your life decisions through their lens of fulfillment.
Your choice wouldn’t be fulfilling to them, so it is therefore a bad choice. However, you must consider the decision through your own lens. Your dad may view a side business as a waste, but you may find it purpose-giving. Your wife may see your love of travel as fruitless, but you may find it meaningful and inspiring.
When speaking with others, view their decisions not through your lens of fulfillment but through theirs. When speaking to yourself, prioritize the things that fill you up.
Virginia Hall may have been an unlikely British spy, but the world is better off for it.