The Existentialism of Louis Zamperini
By William Irwin
(NOTE: This article was previously published via Psychology Today)
If you’re one of the millions who have read Unbroken, then you already know. If you don’t already know, then you’ll know soon enough when the film version of Unbroken is released on Christmas day. It’s an incredible story and yet it’s true. It’s Life of Pi meets The Kite Runner meetsSchindler’s List.
There are many things to say about the ordeal and odyssey of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner who was brutalized as a prisoner of war in Japan, and it will not spoil the story when I say he made it home. There is no way he should have, but he did. There were plenty of trials and tribulations that could have made him give up, but the worst, in my mind, was the “kill order.” Zamperini was sick, starving, and being tortured by a sadistic guard they called “the Bird.” With small acts of defiance he was able to preserve his dignity and persevere, but then he learned that if Japan surrendered or if the camps were about to be liberated all prisoners would be killed.
This kill order made the struggle pointless. Even if he managed to survive illness, starvation, and torture he would be killed before he could be rescued. Zamperini was not a religious man at this point in his life. He uttered some foxhole prayers but took no comfort in the prospects of a heavenly reward. Instead he was sustained by an irrational hope that he would somehow make it home again to his parents’ small house in Torrance, California.
The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus asks us to imagine Sisyphus, the character cursed by the gods of Greek mythology and punished with the fate of rolling a rock up the same hill every day only to have it roll back down again. Like Sisyphus, at least the way Camus imagines him, Zamperini’s scorn fuels him. But Sisyphus has a major advantage over Zamperini: his punishment is consistent, the same every day. Part of what so scarred Zamperini and other prisoners was that the Bird was so unpredictable with his punishment.
Zamperini’s irrational hope that he would somehow return home recalls another existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, and the story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard describes Abraham as a “knight of faith.” As the story goes, God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. This would seem to be a strange request from a loving God who answered Abraham’s prayers for a son in his old age. Ever faithful, Abraham sets out to perform the sacrifice and is rewarded for his faith when a ram is provided as a last minute substitute sacrifice. As Kierkegaard imagines it, Abraham had the paradoxical belief that he must follow God’s instructions and yet somehow Isaac would be preserved. He had faith in the impossible and his faith was rewarded.
Zamperini did not act on religious faith. In a way, that would have been easier. For the believer, paradoxes and contradictions can be reconciled by God. But in a hopeless situation, Zamperini had hope. The proportions of Zamperini’s hope are impressive indeed. Yet anyone who has ever felt hopeless can identify. For many people who have struggled with depression, addiction, and other maladies, there have been times when it has seemed there is no way to continue living as we are and no reason to think that things could change for the better. And yet we find strength in a vision of hope. We make it home beaten and scarred, but unbroken.
Copyright William Irwin 2014