The Energy of Louie Zamperini
“All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was late June 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had withered down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.”
Editor’s Note: When you read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, you stare at the pages of the book in shock at nearly every turn. When I read the opening paragraph of her preface the first time, I knew I would be hooked—not that I didn’t know that already, after hearing my friends tell of it, after knowing that it was the story of both an Olympic runner and World War II prisoner of war.
But I think what grips anyone who devours page after page of Unbroken isn’t just the tales of survival on a raft, or in a prison camp. It’s the incredible power—supernatural, even—that forgiveness had on his life. It’s fitting that we close out our series on Energy during the week of Memorial Day with a nod to Louie Zamperini, because all of us who have read his story have been changed in some way. We learn we can endure. We focus. We long for restoration.
Endurance. Focus. Restoration. What would each of these not upend about work in politics? In the few sentences below, a current congressional staffer weighs his story, and the ultimatum his life left for each of us to consider. Forgive your enemies—even ones who’ve dealt you irreparable harm—or live crushed by them forever.
There’s a paradox in the book’s title: we can’t be unbroken until we’ve been broken. And it's the broken who write the story of restoration. So in the words of Laura Hillenbrand, here’s to “the wounded and the lost.”
-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder
Louie’s time as a POW was soul crushing; he was the personal punching bag for a notorious Japanese prison guard nicknamed the Bird. And even after returning home, Zamperini was still fighting his captors even though they were separated by an ocean. Battling nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety, Zamperini turned to alcohol and violence. Overcome with shame for what they had done to him, Zamperini became consumed by hatred.
“No one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home. In prison camp, he’d been beaten into dehumanized obedience to a world order in which the Bird was absolute sovereign, and it was under this world order that he still lived. The Bird had taken his dignity and left him feeling humiliated, ashamed, and powerless, and Louie believed that only the Bird could restore him, by suffering and dying in the grip of his hands. A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder.
“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant. During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.” pp. 365-366
It wasn't until Zamperini was able to forgive his captors that he was freed from the flashbacks and anxiety. He physically endured some of the most devastating, intense torture and pain imaginable. Not only did his war injuries keep him from returning to the Olympic Games, he also couldn’t escape or recover from the mental torture he had faced. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to forgive: I'm struggling through that myself right now. I’m convicted by Louie’s ability to have the courage and humility to forgive his captors.
Zamperini’s hatred toward the Bird didn’t stay compartmentalized, it consumed all of who he was and he became bitter. It may be difficult initially to see how unforgiveness towards a parent, friend, or stranger can harm our work or political careers but unforgiveness and bitterness will permeate our lives. The evidence lies in our rhetoric—the lack of compassion and empathy we too often see and hear in politics. Louie shows us that we have the opportunity to allow our energy to come from the freedom we’ve received through redemption and forgiveness.
-From a Current Executive Assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Louie’s story doesn’t end in brokenness, but rather by becoming un-broken, captivated by grace at a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in September 1949.
“Graham looked out over his audience. ‘Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning man, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is out lost in the sea of life.’ He told of hell and salvation, men saved and men lost, always coming back to the stooped figure [of Jesus talking to the woman caught in adultery] drawing letters in the sand.” p. 373
Having met the one who can forgive us all, Louie’s life was changed forever.
“Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. 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.” p. 376
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If you haven’t already read Unbroken in its entirety, you’re going to want to get a copy and read it. If you already know Zamperini’s story, what impact has it had on your relational energy? Share your thoughts with a friend, or comment below.
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or by funding the movement bydonating monthly or by making a purchase in our store.