The 2014 film “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, depicted the life of American WWII hero Louie Zamperini. The film was based on a book with the same name written by best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand. After watching both the movie and reading the book, I came away with several “lessons of miracles.”
The first lesson is that miracles do happen. The life of Louie Zamperini was one of incredible hardship, grit and survival. He survived a plane crash over the Pacific Ocean, then survived a 47-day long adrift out in the open Pacific in a raft with no food or water, and then captured by the Japanese navy after drifting 2,000 miles, he survived a two-year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp.
One can attribute his incredible survival to his great physical strength, which he obviously had as a world class Olympic runner, or lucky breaks, which he had a few also. But if physical strength were the major factor that determined life and death, it would not explain why Phil, the diminutive, quiet pilot who along with Louie, survived the same crash, the same 47-day adrift and similar subsequent 2-year ordeal at the hands of the notorious Japanese military.
Looking at Zamperini’s life as a whole, from his birth to Italian immigrant parents to his death at age 97, the kinds of breaks he received just seemed too numerous to be mere random accidents. Maybe he was just an extraordinarily lucky man who was able to dodge death at every turn, then again the word “miracle” comes to mind many times when you look at his life.
Miracles can be the earth-shattering happenings that seem to defy logic and common sense seen in ancient myths including the Bible. But they don’t have to be. They take place more often than we realize. If we care to open our minds and hearts, we are likely to see miracles everywhere and at any moment. Miracles are not myths but real. The story of Zamperini is just one example.
Jolie’s film focused on the more dramatic aspects of Zamperini’s life: from the Olympics to his final liberation from the Japanese prison camp - impressive stuff for movies for sure, but I think the life of Zamperini after he returned home is equally telling.
Having remained unbroken through a rough childhood, the Olympics, an airplane crash, the 47-day raft on the Pacific, and the two years at several notoriously brutal Japanese military prisons, Zamperini was nearly broken after he came home.
The trauma from the war, especially the torture and humiliation at the Japanese prison seemed to have finally caught up with him. Consumed by a deep resentment and hatred towards his captors, Zamperini became restless, irritable and angry, inflamed by a desire to take revenge.
But the tough Italian kid growing up known for his ability to “get even” was never able to get his revenge as an adult because of circumstances beyond his control (including but not limited to the change of US policy of pardoning all Japanese war criminals following the Korean War). This drove him crazy. He drifted into depression and alcoholism, and his life including his new family began to fall apart.
If you think emotional wounds do not hurt as much as physical ones, look again at Zamperini. Back home, he might be free from physical dangers, but his mental anguish sank him to a very low place and it nearly broke him.
What saved him this time was not his physical prowess but what can be called a “sudden spiritual experience.” He became an evangelical Christian at the urge of his wife, who was in the process of divorcing him. Miraculously (this in itself is another miracle) right after the conversion, he not only quickly gave up drinking but overnight, it seemed, his huge emotional trouble was lifted – he became a different man, his desire for revenge was replaced by an overwhelming willingness for complete forgiveness.
With this, he found a new purpose in life. Instead of capitalizing on his war hero celebrity status for money as he had originally planned, he would devote the rest of his life at a nonprofit he founded helping disadvantaged youth take control of their lives by cultivating self-respect through athleticism and learning survival skills.
I have my doubts about the Evangelicals’ claim that Zamperini was able to “save” many people including many of his former Japanese enemies through his Christian missionary work. But I have no doubt that Zamperini made a huge difference in the lives of many people, and I have no doubt that he himself was saved. And herein for me lies the next lesson of miracles.
It starts with a question: since life is so full of trials and tribulations, is it possible for us human beings to remain unbroken under any circumstances that life throws at us? Reflecting on Zamperini’s life stories, I have to conclude that the answer maybe “yes.” But there seems to be a catch: it appears that relying solely on ourselves – whether it’s our self-will, intelligence or other man-made stuff will not quite “do the trick.” Humans – at least some if not all of us – constantly need a force beyond our own power to keep us safe, sane and sound. This basic human need, another lesson of miracles, is the most potent force for human improvement.
For those of us who are curious enough to probe, the next questions may be: what exactly is this force beyond our human power or simply: why there are miracles. I believe an endless probe to these questions will ultimately point to the so-called “Argument from Miracles” as explained by Boston College’s Professor Peter Kreeft (www.peterkreeft.com), which for me is the "ultimate" lesson of miracles:
1. A miracle is an event whose only adequate explanation is the extraordinary and direct intervention of a force (a higher power) beyond human power, which we call God
2. There are numerous well-attested miracles
3. Therefore, numerous events whose only adequate explanation is the extraordinary and direct intervention of this higher power
4. Therefore, higher power or God exists.