Crossroads of Light and Darkness: Louis Zamperini (1917 – 2014).

Yesterday I saw the film Unbroken–an American war drama film produced and directed by Angelina Jolie and based on a book by the same title, written by Laura Hillenbrand. The film describes the adventures, trials and tribulations, failures and successes, and ultimate marvelous life of Louis Zamperini (1917 – 2014).

Zamperini was a second-generation Italian American born in Olean, an oil town in western New York. His hometown became a safe “haven” for bootleggers during Prohibition in the 1920s. Al Capone and other mobsters were frequent visitors to Olean–and this garnered the town the moniker “Little Chicago.” But luckily, Zamperini’s family moved away from Olean right before Prohibition started, and they settled in Torrance, California, where his father worked for the railroad.

Crossroads of Light and Darkness

Crossroads

Crossroads

In California, Louis Zamperini found himself at a crossroads: On one hand, there was a path of darkness. He could have become a resentful teenager, getting into fights or joining gangs. He carried a chip on his shoulder for being unable to speak English properly. As a young teenager, he had minor run-ins with the law—nothing serious but enough to worry his folks that he might get into bigger trouble.

On the other hand, in front of Louis Zamperini there was a path of light: He could make something of himself, “clean up his act,” so to speak, and set himself on a positive direction. Zamperini’s big break came when he discovered his incredible talent for track and field sports.

Path to the Olympics

Olympic Stadium, Berlin, 1936

Olympic Stadium, Berlin, 1936

With the help of his elder brother (Pete), Louis began to win track and field races and set records. At the age of 20, Louis Zamperini became a world interscholastic champion, running the mile at 4:21.2 minutes. That led him to qualify to run the 5,000-meter race in the Summer Olympics of 1936, which was held in Berlin, Germany. The young American did not win a medal in Berlin, but the experience marked him for the rest of his life.

During World War II, Zamperini survived several weeks lost at sea, and subsequently prison camp in Japan. He returned home a hero.

But after the ticker tape parades silenced, and the effusions of home coming faded, Zamperini again found himself facing the old demons of anonymity and darkness. Yes, he had his track and field records, his war medals, and his stories of triumph—but the world quickly forgets and moves on to other wars, other heroes, other olympics records, other triumphs. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” the ancient Romans would say–“Thus passes the glory of the world.”

Zamperini had his own “sic transit” moment when he found himself facing the old crossroads: a path of darkness crossing over a path of light. Zamperini hit the Skid Row: heavy drinking, depression, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, impoverishment, and aimlessness.

Story Telling for Inspiration

Zamperini could have taken the path of resentment, or he could have set himself on a positive path. That positive path opened up when Zamperini discovered that he had yet another talent: that of a story teller and inspirational speaker.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham

Thus, he connected himself with another rising start of the 1940s, the American evangelical Christian evangelist Billy Graham. The chemistry between the two men was instantaneous. Graham, the evangelist, needed stories of triumph of the spirit over evil; Zamperini, the war hero, needed a big audience where he could tell his story. Zamperini would do what he loved best to do: to tell the world about his stories of triumph. And Billy Graham would have his “evidence” that the grace of conversion really works.

Zamperini Inspires Japan

Coached by Graham, Zamperini reinvented himself as an inspirational speaker and went back to Japan in 1950, where he publicly forgave the Japanese prison guards and preached Christian conversion to the Japanese. Zamperini became Billy Graham’s “success story” of Christian conversion. He found himself again on the spotlight, retelling his breath-taking experiences. The spotlight opened a path of light for Louis Zamperini.

Thus, Zamperini’s story became an American story of triumph over darkness and adversity, as he lived a life of daring, redemption, faith, and perseverance. But what is the bigger picture, from the Back-to-the-Body Perspective?

Zamperini from the Back-to-the-Body Perspective

Recall that there are three levels of spirituality, following Nietzsche’s terminology: the camel, the lion, and the child. The “camel” is the achiever (“stomach” level); the “lion” is the fighter (“brain” level); and the “child” is the creator (“heart” level). From Zamperini’s life, we can see that he was very much the lion. He saw himself as fighting adversaries and beating them by being better than they were. Zamperini’s motto was, “If you can take it, you can make it.”

Thus, Zamperini used his talents to become better than his high-school bullies, by beating them in track and field sports. As a prisoner of war in Japan, Zamperini “beat” the prison guards by “taking” whatever punishment the guards would inflict on him. Zamperini then went back to Japan and “forgave” his former tormentors. Thus, Zamperini found a way to triumph by developing his own talents.

Finding Your Inner Camel or Lion or Child

How can we follow Zamperini’s example? Actually, not everyone can imitate what Zamperini has done, because not everyone is a “lion” in their spiritual level. A lion takes on fights and wins by “taking it.”

Lions Conquer Wars

Lion roars

Lion roars

Winston Churchill was another lion of World War II. His motto was, “We must just KBO”–where “KBO” stood for “Keep Buggering On.” This is very similar to Zamperini’s, “If you can take it, you can make it.”

Jesus was a lion–the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” As was US President John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, General George S. Patton, and the legendary Don Quijote. Include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the group of lions.

But what if your spiritual level is something other than a lion? What if you are a camel or a child?

The Camel is the Achiever

Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca is a good example of a camel. His achievements consisted in doing great tasks. For example, Iacocca introduced the Ford Mustang at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Include Bill Gates in the group of camels. Include Mitt Romney in this group as well.

Child is the Creator

What about examples of a child? One can think of Einstein, who was able to use his imagination to create great theories. Another example of a child was Steve Jobs, who had so much fun creating incredible pieces of equipment and software to delight people the world over. Che Guevara should be included in this group of creating minds.

The Übermensch Includes All Three Aspects

But of course, it is a simplification to box such people at one category, to the exclusion of the other categories. No one is just one thing. In fact, I understand Nietzsche’s Übermensch to be exactly that: someone who has a perfect balanced between the three levels: camel, lion, and child. US Pres. Abraham Lincoln is a good example of an Übermensch, someone who has a good balance of camel, lion, and child.

The story of Zamperini can inspire us to find our own talents. As we enter an age in which people may be confronted with PTSD, depression, and hopelessness, the story of how one person was able to find light amidst darkness can bring us inspiration and hope. And a good way to find the light is to know yourself, your own talents. And then, the develop your talents to the utmost.

Happy New Year!

Paulo-Juarez Pereira
Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA
December 29, 2014

Photo Credits:

Photo: Olympic Stadium, 1936, Berlin; Author: David Jones; Source: http://bit.ly/1y1cXwA; Creative Commons Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Photo: Crossroads; Author: Robert; Source: http://bit.ly/1AZjI1F; Creative Commons Licence: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo: Billy Graham; Author: matt; Source: http://bit.ly/1Bf8Afs; Creative Commons Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Photo: Lion; Author: bako The Jaguar; Source: http://bit.ly/1tu2ZTy; Creative Commons Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Photo: Lee Iacocca; Author: SOCIALisBETTER; Source: http://bit.ly/1xtLHY7; Creative Commons Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

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