What do you do when two of your favorite but very different magazines (Sports Illustrated and Christian Century) contain exceptional reviews of the same book?  If you’re me, you buy the book and read it as soon as possible.  It also doesn’t hurt that Lauren Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken is currently #1 on the New York Times best seller list and was named Time magazine’s #1 non-fiction book of 2010.

I love reading biographies and memoirs because I find in each person’s life inspiration, encouragement, and hope to do the impossible in my own life.  Unbroken; A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption is the story of Louie Zamperini, who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5,000 meter run and went on to set the NCAA record in the mile, which lasted for 15 years.  Hillenbrand writes that Zamperini “didn’t run from something or to something, not for anyone or in spite of anyone; he ran because it was what his body wished to do.” 

Just as Zamperini was peaking for the 1,500 meter run at the 1940 Olympics inHelsinki, Europeexploded into war, and the Olympics were canceled.  Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Corp where he became a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator.  What followed was a 5 year journey through the unspeakable horrors of war, including being shot down in his plane, floating 2,000 miles in the Pacific on a tiny raft for 46 days without food and water, being taken prisoner by the Japanese, and enduring starvation, torture, physical abuse, and unimaginable hardship as a POW.  

The man who ran a 4 minute 12 second mile on the beaches ofHawaiithe day his plane went down became a shell of a human being, staying alive by sheer resourcefulness, determination to survive, and God’s grace.

Unfortunately, Zamperini’s story is lived out daily by people around the world whose lives are threatened by circumstances we cannot begin to fathom.  What is it that enables people to survive in the midst of hopelessness and despair, whether because of war, poverty, famine, illness, chronic pain, depression, unemployment, or abuse?

  • Persistence:  Louie Zamperini simply would not give up and saw every obstacle as a challenge.  He had an incredible will to live, which gave him an inner strength to push himself beyond his capabilities.  That persistence not only made him a great runner but enabled him to endure when others gave up.
  • Dignity: When his Japanese guards kicked and beat him into unconsciousness, treating him as less than human, Louie and his comrades were determined not to become passive victims.  Rather, they devised ways to actively resist their oppressors and keep each other’s spirits alive.  Hillenbrand writes about dignity, “The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”
  • Community: The POW’s relied on each other to make it through one day at a time.  These men became soul friends for life, bound together by a common desire to survive.  They were also keenly aware of the prayers of friends and families, urging them not to give up.
  • The High Road: One of the most seductive of human temptations is to return evil for evil.  Zamperini’s greatest challenge after returning home was to let go of his zeal for revenge against his Japanese captors and learn to forgive.  His inability to move past his anger almost cost Zamperini his marriage and his life.  On the day Zamperini gave his life to God at a Billy Graham crusade, the flashbacks, nightmares, and desire for retaliation stopped, never to return.  When we claim God’s grace to take the high road, we are free to become our true selves.

 Because of repeated physical abuse as a POW, Zamperini was never able to compete at a world class level after returning home.  However, after his conversion Zamperni devoted the rest of his life to serving God by sharing his story.  It was a promise he made to God while lying on that raft, thirsting to death, “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

Unbroken is about more than its subject, Louie Zamperini, however.  It is also a story about the author, Laura Hillenbrand, whose own life mirrors Zamperini’s in an uncanny way.  At age 19, Hillenbrand, a young athletic woman in perfect health, was struck without warning by a debilitating disease that left her unable to walk, think clearly, or function normally.  For the last 24 years, Hillenbrand has struggled with an extreme form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for which there is no effective treatment.  Hillenbrand was forced to drop out of college, stay in her room for months at a time with vertigo, and hire assistants to help her.  To this day she spends most of her time at home in silence and isolation.

Because of the love and support of her family, friends, and husband, Hillenbrand resolved to become a writer, which she could do from home.  In 2001 she published her first bestseller, Seabiscuit, about a great America race horse and his jockey, Red Pollard, who defied all odds to become America’s darlings in the Depression years.  When Hillenbrand was writing Seabiscuit, she discovered that another runner, a young man named Louie Zamperini, often shared the same sports pages in the 1930’s.  Hillenbrand spent the next decade researching Unbroken from home.  Suffering a serious relapse during that time, Hillenbrand did not leave her house from 2007 to the summer of 2009. 

It’s no coincidence that Hillenbrand has written about a horse and a man who survived against all odds.  That is her life every day.  Despite her fame, Hillenbrand is not able to travel from her home in Washington, D.C.  She won’t be taking a book tour to meet her fans and autograph Unbroken at Barnes and Noble.  Hillenbrand says that she usually only has enough energy for one activity a day.  Because she is not mobile, she doesn’t even need a cell phone.  In an interview with Bill O’Leary of the Washington Post, Hillenbrand says that in order to cope with her illness, she has learned to detach herself from any hopes and dreams she might have.  “I hardly ever listen to music anymore because it arouses all of this yearning in me,” she says.

For seven years, Zamerpini and Hillenbrand developed a friendship in absentia. Zamperini didn’t even know why all of their conversations were over the phone until he read an interview with Hillenbrand and learned about her illness.  He said, “I sent her one of my Purple Hearts.  I said, ‘You deserve this more than me.’”

You and I will likely never have to cope with the extreme physical and emotional trauma that Louie Zamperini, who is in his 90’s, and Lauren Hillenbrand, 43, have had to face in their lives.  Yet each one of us lives with wounds: some festering, some long healed, and some breaking open at the strangest of times.

  • What is it that prevents you from living fully? 
  • Will you accept the love and help of others when the going is tough?
  • Will you take the high road, refusing to be imprisoned by revenge, and claiming the power of forgiveness to free you?
  • Will you dare to open yourself to the fullness of life and the possibilities that await when you follow God’s leading?
  • Could you become a wounded healer, like Louie Zamperini and Lauren Hillenbrand, allowing God to use your brokenness to bring wholeness and hope to a weary world?
  • What is it that your life wishes to become?

May God bless our veterans, from World War II toKorea, toVietnam, toIraqandAfghanistan, who risked and even sacrificed their lives so that all people in our world might be free.  May God give strength to all who suffer and are broken.  May God grant persistence to all who need strength beyond themselves.  And may God grant us the grace to become wound-dressers ourselves. 

What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains? …

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes – poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
would save you.

                                    From “The Wound-Dresser” by Walt Whitman

Blessings, Laurie

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