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Survival & Forgiveness, Life Lessons from Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini having reached his 97th year went to heaven on July 2, 2014, after living what can only be described as a miraculous, amazing, extraordinary life. For those who have not read the book about his life Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand, I highly recommend this well-written story that I’m pleased to say is being made into an epic movie as I type.

Actress and movie director Angelina Jolie has taken on the auspicious task of producing what must be a Herculean effort to encapsulate perhaps the most amazing story of survival I’ve ever heard. My father made sure that all seven of his children were well aware of the success of any Italian American. Louis falls firmly into that class of special people for many reasons, well beyond the 9 lives that he’d seemingly been given.

His life provides many valuable lessons applicable to career and relationships. Here are a few of those life lessons:

Louis was self-made and humble. Like many immigrant families, his family struggled to make a life in America. So anything he accomplished he accomplished without the benefit and support of wealth. But he never gave up! After realizing he had a gift for speed (by outrunning the police), he turned it into a passion for sprinting that took him to the Berlin Olympics.

“Someone who doesn’t make the [Olympic] team might weep and collapse. In my day no one fell on the track and cried like a baby. We lost gracefully. And when someone won, he didn’t act like he’d just become king of the world, either. Athletes in my day were simply humble in our victory.”

Louis was goal oriented. From street kid to Olympic athlete, Louis had the world by the tail until his B-24 bomber crashed into the warm Pacific during WWII. Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps.

Beaten and starved, he was saved from execution due to his status as an athlete—the same status that earned him unbearable torture.

“All I want to tell young people is that you’re not going to be anything in life unless you learn to commit to a goal. You have to reach deep within yourself to see if you are willing to make the sacrifices.”

Louis wasn’t perfect. What I loved most about his biography was the truth it shared. Louis struggled with alcohol haunted by the burden of what he’d endured during the war. His addiction and misery nearly ended his marriage and his life until he heard Billy Graham, came to faith, and radically changed his life. His story of redemption and finding a higher purpose is inspiring and relatable.

“I’d made it this far and refused to give up because all my life I had always finished the race.”

Louis believed in forgiveness. As an inspirational speaker, Louis spoke about forgiveness. It became his theme. He made a point of meeting with and forgiving the Japanese soldiers who tortured him, hugging their necks and explaining the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Louis ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, not far from the POW camp where he had been held.

“I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate somebody, you’re not hurting the person you hate, you’re hurting yourself. It’s a healing, actually, it’s a real healing … forgiveness.”

Rest in peace, Louis Zamperini. You certainly deserve it.