Reflections on ‘Unbroken’ by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
Summary from Amazon.com…In boyhood, Louis Zamperini was an incorrigible delinquent. As a teenager, he channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics. But when World War II began, the athlete became an airman, embarking on a journey that led to a doomed flight on a May afternoon in 1943. When his Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, against all odds, Zamperini survived, adrift on a foundering life raft. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.
I’ll admit that I’m not big into books turned into movies. In most cases the movie falls woefully short of capturing the imagination a reader can put into a book. I’ve got a lot of quirks (believe it or not) and one of them is a pretty staunch resistance to seeing such movies until I’ve read the book first, and then have decided if the movie could be an entertaining adaptation. The movie ‘Unbroken’? …never saw it. (Sorry for any false build up of your classic ‘book v. movie’ review!). However, I was intrigued by the story enough, that when I came across the audiobook at my local library, I snagged it along with a couple of others.
‘MAN!’ is the usual well-articulated response to most stories I read or watch concerning just about any story that has to do with the World War II era. The young men and women of this time period have often been called ‘The Greatest Generation’, and I’ll be honest, it’s hard to argue after hearing some of the stories that many of these individuals and communities went through during such times.
One such story is that of Louis Zamperini, a young guy growing up on the West Coast in the throes of the Great Depression. Let me summarize Louis’s life story in plain English. This dude grows up poor in California, getting in all sorts of trouble that adolescents do. The crazy thing is, his troublemaking is half out of being a chemically unbalanced teenage boy (as scientifically speaking all teenagers are), and half out of nearly starving every day from living in poverty. As luck would have it, this guy could run. So he ran himself all the way through college, and to the Olympics!
Life goals accomplished, right? No. Life happens. WWII. Now Louis is flying bomber planes, risking his life, and that of his fellow airmen, every time he gets into a plane. His plane goes down… IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN! No one finds these three airmen who are now stranded in the ocean on a life raft, EXCEPT THE JAPANESE. It’s not bad enough that Louis is in the war, then he has to go crash his plane. It’s not bad enough he’s stranded in the ocean with sharks trying to eat him and his friends; he has to get captured and tortured as a prisoner of war (POW) for over a year after that.
But Louis doesn’t give up. Something inside him tells him to keep going, to wake up each day, to keep marching each day, to not give into the invitation of death at just about every corner. SURVIVE. Eventually the war will be ended, and Louis will return back to the US, where his family is anxious to have him return to ‘normal life’. But Louis will never return to ‘normal’ life…never again. Nor will the millions of individuals who experienced the horrors of war, whether as POWs, or survivors, or soldiers, or civilians, or anyone else for that matter. The world was changed forever, and Louis’s life was changed, yet again, forever.
Oh, by the way, there is this guy named Billy Graham who changes Louis’s life forever by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with him. It’s the message of forgiveness in Christ that will ultimately lead Louis to forgive his Japanese captors, save his marriage, quit the alcohol and who knows what else he was using to self-medicate from the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he was experiencing at the time, and ultimately hand over his life to ministry (because Louis didn’t do enough with his life yet).
‘MAN!’ is all can muster as this book came to a close. So many thoughts; so many emotions. One of the first things I usually think when I read stories like this is, ‘well Jeff, what have YOU done with your life up to this point?’ No Olympics? Shame. No war hero? Tisk, tisk, tisk. Not married, or with children, or saving souls? Well, what ARE you doing?
But then I think about Louis a little more. I’m pretty sure if you could ask Louis about his life, he would not necessarily recommend it like one would recommend a restaurant or vacation destination. Louis lived his life passionately. And when living passionately was not the priority, when he was starving nearly to death and being tortured every day, Louis survived. Sometimes that’s all we can do.
One thing I always glean from stories like this, or when I meet people living with similar struggles even today around the world, is the ability to appreciate just how good I have it in this world. And when life gets tough, whether it’s during a long run on a mountain (physical), or depressing thoughts seems to be nipping at my toes (emotional), or when I second-guess whether I’m called to be sharing God’s Word with people (spiritual), I remember people like Louis. I think he would tell me to keep going. I think he would say that while things sometimes seem bleak, there is a future, and who knows what great things may lie ahead.
Thank you to all the heroic women and men who have battled and struggled through life each and every day to help realize the life that we all get to experience here today. Some days are bright and beautiful. Other days sometimes feel like life as we know it is waiting to fall apart. But despite any ups and downs we have in this world, we are called to live passionately, and sometimes just survive. It may not be as glamorous as the movies or media may want us to envision for the ‘American Dream,’ but it’s a lesson that the Greatest Generation lived out for us, and because of such perseverance, hard work, and ultimately faith, we can live the lives we lead today. To that, I say thank you.