‘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