‘Unbroken’: Louie Zamperini’s story offers crucial lessons for improving mental, spiritual health

Louis Zamperini

Reviewing “Unbroken” is a difficult task. The story of famous Olympian and World War II hero Louie Zamperini’s life includes an endless list of lessons. Author Laura Hillenbrand, who also penned “Seabiscuit,” has churned out a product that is essential reading for anyone who seeks to improve their mental and spiritual health. Mr. Zamperini’s tale is a road map for greatness, and it is one that all Americans would be wise to study.

In short, the book can be divided into the following segments:

    • Louie’s defiant childhood and the moment he realized that his defiance could be channeled to bring him positive attention.
    • His time as an elite runner at USC and his 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
    • Louie’s training and missions as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
    • The crash of the B-24 named “Green Hornet,” and his survival in shark-infested waters for 47 days.
    • His time spent as a prisoner of war at multiple Japanese camps, including Kwajalein (“Execution Island”), Ofuna (a secret interrogation center), Omari and Naoetsu (where Mutsuhiro Watanabe made it his all-consuming mission to break Zamperini’s spirit).
    • The end of the war, Louie’s decent into darkness with PTSD, and his salvation through Christ.

Each chapter of Mr. Zamperini’s life could be turned into its own book, yet Ms. Hillenbrand found a way to seamlessly tie them all together into a thought-provoking read that lives up to its billing: “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”

How does a man survive in the middle of the ocean on a tiny raft for 47 days? How does a man endure the horrors of a POW camp, where every effort is made to strip him of his humanity (e.g., injecting him with experimental drugs, beating him daily, and making him regularly clean up a pig’s bowel movements with his bare hands in return for food)?

The answer comes down to realizing that how you think about things — the conscious decisions you make every day regarding what to focus on — play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of your life.

Ms. Hillenbrand writes:

“Exposure, dehydration, stress, and hunger had quickly driven many of [World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker’s] party insane, a common fate for raft-bound men. Louie was more concerned with sanity than he was about sustenance. He kept thinking of a college physiology class he had taken, in which the instructor taught them to think of the mind as a muscle that would atrophy if left idle. Louie was determine that no matter what happened to their bodies, their minds would stay under their control. …

Within a few days of the crash, Louie began peppering the other two with questions on every conceivable subject. Phil took up the challenge, and soon he and Louie turned the raft into a nonstop quiz show. …

For Louie and Phil, the conversations were healing, pulling them out of their suffering and setting the future before them as a concrete thing. As they imagined themselves back in the world again, they willed a happy ending onto their ordeal and made it their expectation. With these talks, they created something to live for. …

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perception of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling,” (Lauren Hillenbrand. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010. 145-148).

While “Mac” would ultimately redeem himself for some of his early behavior on the raft (e.g., he ate the only source of food the men had while they slept the first night), his inability to change his focus from death to life appears to be a major reason for his failure to survive.

One way to explain what is going on is this: the unconscious mind never sleeps. Since the unconscious mind operates outside time and space (i.e., think of how time and space operate in your dreams), it is vitally important that you are aware of what you decide to add to the mix. During the day a person plants seeds of thought into his subconscious. Those seeds eventually take root, and the fruit they bear affects both the conscious and subconscious mind. When the mind is weighed down with negative thoughts, it in turn weighs down the spirit. The spirit is strong — stronger than we can ever imagine — but when it breaks, then the body and mind surely follow.

Louie Zamperini understood that just as it was important to exercise his body if he wanted to be a world-class runner, the real key to success is to exercise the muscles that can not be seen or measured on a scale. In order to excel in the physical world an individual must also concentrate on the metaphysical. For Mr. Zamperini, whose PTSD after the war led him to abuse alcohol as a way of dealing with flashbacks and nightmares, peace was finally found when he embraced Christianity.

“In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept.” (376)

The night that Mr. Zamperini fully understood his own faith, his nightmares ended. He regained his life, saved his marriage and even found it within himself to forgive the men who tortured him during the war.

While “Unbroken” is scheduled to be released to the big screen this Christmas, I highly recommend buying the book and adding it to your reading list before then. I find it hard to imagine that by the time you turn the last page that you will not experience a “single, silent moment” that will change your life for the better.

The Runner King

Alone together on a Sunday morning, the track and the runner form a unique relationship, one where they are simultaneously king and subject. At that moment the track exists for him. As the sun rises and the dew glistens in the grass he determines what the workout will be. Will it be a long slow run that he’s done countless times before? Will he run sprints? Or, will he glide along at a brisk pace that leaves him pleasantly winded — the kind of breathing that really lets him know he’s alive without overly taxing his body.

Any king worth his salt will always find ways to humble himself. He needs to know that there are forces out there that can bring him to his knees. He needs to know that life is temporary, and that one day he will die. The humbled man allows respect to flow through his veins, which often carries with it things like kindness and discipline, foresight and a sense of purpose.

And so, knowing this, the Runner King will often submit himself to a workout that leaves every ounce of his body screaming for mercy. The lessons he learns by testing his limits are taught to him by the track, thereby establishing it as his master. It would be easier to “jog” around the course, smile with and pride think about how much “better” he is than those still sleeping in, tucked in all snug in their beds — dreaming of doing. But the Runner King knows the he is not better than anyone else, and he reminds himself of this by running faster and faster and faster, until the burn in his bones and his heart and his lungs melts his smug sense of superiority away. Then, when it’s gone, in its place is a little diamond of thought: You came from dust, and to dust you will return.

Upon leaving, the Runner King is thankful. He is thankful for the track. He is thankful for his health. He is thankful he is alive. He is tired, but he is invigorated. And most of all, he is inspired to share the lessons he’s learned with his friends, his enemies, and the ones he loves.

Related: Why we run

Why we run

When I talk to most non-runners about running, the biggest complaints seem to be that it’s a.) painful and b.) boring. Both opinions tell us more about the person making them—and by extension our culture—than any accurate truths about the sport. A healthy society does not seek to avoid pain at any cost, because there are times when pain is good. You must break down muscle to build muscle. You must find your limits in order to figure out ways to extend them. Pain is humbling, and men who have been humbled are capable of great deeds. Such observations on the nature of pain dovetail nicely with the second accusation—that running is boring. Again, the runner knows otherwise.

On a long run, the only companion a runner has is his own thoughts. There are no video games, musicians, 24-hour cable new networks, brothers, sisters, moms, dads or bosses to serve as a distraction. The runner’s mind isn’t clouded by alcohol or drugs or other substances, and as a result he becomes tuned in to his own body and inner thoughts in ways others aren’t.

Years ago, when my mileage was particularly heavy, I reached a point where at any point in time I could gauge how fast I was moving without the aid of a watch. I’d do experiments just to see how accurate I could get, and often times could predict down to the second how my mile times were. How is my heart rate? What is the cadence of my breath telling me? What is my turnover rate? Is my second (or possibly third?) wind coming on? Like yoga, there is something spiritual about running, although I would argue that running takes it a step further (no pun intended).

Ask any runner about their favorite path, and they know every square inch of it. They know where there are divots that could be dangerous on the ankles, slight changes in the slope of the land, straightaways than always inspire a sprint, and that place where the sun always rises in a way that could melt the hardest of hearts. In a society that thinks it needs to be stimulated by an onslaught of images and sound, the runner is someone whose mind can be stimulated by silence. There are deeper truths that reveal themselves in the seclusion of a long run that societies dependent on Twitter streams and Facebook updates and “friend requests” all to often fail to learn.

Running is a sport that highlights like no other that, no matter what the endeavor, we are primarily competing with ourselves. Once we overcome the obstacles and mountains in our mind, those of the outside world erode tremendously. When we navigate the valleys inside our heart, the low points in our personal and professional life become less daunting. Whether you’re new to running or someone who’s been hitting the pavement for years, I hope this piece helps motivate you to lace up and head out the door. And if our paths should cross I promise to look you in the eye and give the quick head nod all good runners extend to one another that says, non-verbally, everything I’ve written here.

Related: The Runner King

Holland Reynolds, Cross Country, and Conservatism

Holland Reynolds has something to teach all of us. However, I implore conservatives to take a good hard look at her story; it's a metaphor for the kind of American we seek to create.

California isn’t a lost cause after all!  Sure, most of us look at the sad liberal mess it’s become and shake our head (these days it’s only good at exporting jobs to its neighbors, and the worse their self-imposed financial disaster gets the more they stick to the same mentality that caused it).  However, the California State Cross Country Championships—and more specifically the tale of Holland Reynolds—is inspirational for a number of reasons.  It’s also a great metaphor for the kind of world conservatives seek to create.

In short, Holland collapsed on the home stretch to the finish line.  Anyone who has seriously run Cross Country knows what it’s like to completely empty your tank—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. However, many runners know that most of the time when people think they’ve dug deep down inside and have nothing left to give…that there is more to give. And Holland’s story proves it.

Who would have blamed this young girl after her collapse if she just closed her eyes, rolled over, and waited for coaches and trainers to give her medical attention? No one. But something inside said to ignore the pain and soldier on because her teammates were counting on her.  It often doesn’t make sense to the casual spectator why someone who has tumbled to the ground would rather crawl on their knees than to be carried off the field of play when injury strikes. The runner, however, knows better.

The fans on the sideline never saw the long lonely miles or the pre-dawn runs that helped propel her to the state championships to begin with. They could never know of the time, dedication, patience, and isolation that it takes to be an elite long distance runner.  They could never see the sacrifice it took behind the scenes to reach that level of success…

Imagine if we lived in a world where the kind of grit and determination demonstrated by Holland Reynolds was instilled in men and women across the country, and then applied in every aspect of their lives. Imagine if all those random knock downs and blow backs we face in our professional or personal lives triggered a response that said to buckle down, focus on the goal at hand, and move forward. Imagine if we thought about the coaches and mentors and loved ones who invested in us when we considered calling it quits—and then found a hidden supply of inner fortitude because it would hurt even more to let them down. Such a place would be a pretty nice world to live in, wouldn’t it?

The novice runner hits a wall and stops to catch their breath. The experienced runner (or people with the Holland Reynolds gene) knows that there is a second wind to be had. We can go faster and farther than we ever dreamed. We just need to cast off the mind forged manacles of ideologies that blame others for our problems, abdicate individual responsibilities to nameless and faceless third parties, and encourage sloth and apathy through perverted public policy.

Were there people ready and waiting to help Holland if she truly needed it? Of course. But those very same people knew that sometimes we can achieve great heights despite pain and suffering, and that perhaps the character built through such tribulations is far more valuable than the comfort that comes from having caretakers too quick on the draw.

Liberalism is a crutch that’s eager to be used and willing to convince even the able-bodied citizen they’d be better off with a cane. Conservatism is the coach that’s always there by your side in an emergency, but willing to watch you fall down because a.) it’s a part of life and b.) there’s a mettle inside most of us we’ll never realize is there unless we’re given a chance to find it.

Conservatives aren’t cold hearted, just as Holland Reynolds’ coach wasn’t when he watched her crawl over the finish line. In fact, the life lessons Holland will take away from that state championship race will stay with her the rest of her life.

While I can’t claim to ever have run with the elite, those are the gifts I took away from the sport years ago. It baffles my mind that so many runners out West are liberal, but perhaps conservatives like me have just been silent for too long. Regardless, I tip my hat to Holland Reynolds because she has something to teach all of us.

Rest up my friend. You earned it.