As a part of the work I get to do, I get to learn about some of the challenges and struggles young people face today. There’s a lot of hurt and uncertainty out there. It often leads to bad decisions, and more hurt — which then can lead to an outer shell that is sometimes hard to break through. Hurt leads to hurt, and it can be a vicious cycle.
The kids I work with can benefit from hearing the story of Louis Zamperini. He was a rebellious kid, getting into trouble, until he found his niche — running. And run he could; at one point, putting in the fasted mile ever for a high schooler. He ran so well that he went to the 1936 Olympics and finished 8th in the 5000 meters — an event he had barely competed in. The future looked bright for this 19-year-old.
But World War 2 changed everything. He fought for the U.S., and on a rescue mission, his plane crashed. He was stranded at sea — for 47 days. When he was rescued, it was by the Japanese. As a POW, he was treated horribly — especially by an officer nicknamed “The Bird.”
Louis survived, but on returning home, he spiraled out of control. He had nightmares about The Bird, waking up one night to find himself strangling his wife — dreaming that she was the enemy he so desperately wanted to kill. As Laura Hillenbrand writes in the masterful book about his early life, the war had let Louis go, but Louis hadn’t let the war go. He drank to fight off the anger and pain he faced, but of course, that solved nothing — instead, making things worse. But when his wife cajoled him into going to hear Billy Graham, Louis’s life changed. Dramatically. Forgiveness literally saved his life, and he would eventually travel to Japan — not to find The Bird and kill him, but to forgive those who held him captive.
Louis’s story is the stuff of Hollywood – which is why Angelina Jolie made a movie about him. But his story is also the story of life, for Louis reminds us that:
- Grace is truly transformative. The only way to freedom is not violence, or anger, but love — the love of God that sets us free, and shows that freedom to others.
- How you begin is not how you have to end. Louis had a rough childhood, and had to keep moving to try to out-run his troubles. But despite that, and despite a war experience that seemed sure to break him, he survived — and went on to thrive. There is hope. Remember this before you write off someone else — or yourself. God is in the business of changing hearts — and stories.
- Forgiveness is life-giving – for the forgiver, and the forgiven. In a world of hate and rage and violence, it is not hate or rage or violence that will set us free. It’s forgiveness.
- Perseverance is powerful. There is something about sticking with it through the difficult times. Those who hold on to hope know that what we face now is not forever, and what we see now is only in a mirror, darkly.
Louis Zamperini’s story is so powerful, I’ll be sharing it with some of the young people I work with who need a second chance — who need to know that grace transforms, beginnings don’t have to be endings, forgiveness gives life, and true power is seen in perseverance. Of course, uncertain teens aren’t the only ones who need this message. I do too, and so do you.