POW

There is something in the ether that I picked up on and I confirmed it with a search in google using the words “was jesus a pow”.  It was a shot that came up with possibilities that fit.  Pow for pow-wow and pow for pow’r.  Another one was a youtube video from a band Pow woW , with a song “Jesus”.

I chose the link for Angelina Jolie directing a movie based on the life of POW survivor Louis Zamparini.  It’s basd on a book “Unbroken”, by Lauren Hillenbrand.  From what I gleaned of the history available on the internet about him, he started out as a troubled kid (smoker at 5 years old, school bully by elementary and menace to society by high-school.)  His saving grace was his talent for running which qualified him to be invited to train for the 1936 Olympics.  When WWII broke out he fought in the war and ended up as a POW when his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean and he and his two other crews were taken by the Japanese soldiers.

What initially motivated my search was my curiosity for characteristics of survivors of prison camps.  There has been so many war movies made and that continue to be made for many reasons including, “we” as a race continue to make war.  I read the book “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl of his account as a prisoner in the concentration camps during WWII.  As a psychiatrist his perspective was important to me, because I wonder myself what I would be capable of doing to survive severe conditions in cramped and limited conditions; and equally curious to me, is what are others capable of doing to save their own skin.  What is the common thread of like people?  (Also, I’m curious about group dynamics in stressful conditions.)  On a day to day basis, there are personalities with whom I have an affinity for, while there are those I prefer to avoid.  My resistance to the latter makes me more curious about me.  What makes me feel that way?  What can I change to improve the situation?

Racing towards the sunset at middle age I do ponder more seriously and frequently the meaning of it all.  What is in “Original Sin” that I want to explore through a play?  Our origins, our path, our destiny, and how do we get there?  As companions in life we have our choices of with whom we want to travel with.  Stressful conditions bring out the best and worst in people.  I want to see what stuff, people I work and hang-with, are made of.  To me, the answer is not as simple as “Survival of the Fittest”.  There are people who’ve gone down, sacrificing themselves for the better of humanity.  Just think of the saints and martyrs (who didn’t think of themselves as such, but the outcome of history has earned them that title):  MLK Jr.,  Gandhi. Mother Theresa.

Specific to Frankl and Zamparini, their separate stories, with its similar conditions, show forbearance with meaning.  They are survivors of the worst conditions we can imagine in our comfortable lives, but beyond survival what did they get from the experience?  What did they give back during those years of suffering and/or afterwards?

For Frankl, the experience untombed this perspective,

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered.

As a summary, he expressed in the preface to the 1992 edition of the book:

 ‘I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones… I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair” – Preface by the author to “Man’s Search for Meaning”, by Viktor Frankl.

As for Zamparini, upon his rescue from the camp, he was showered with the accolades of a hero.  He ran with the torch for the Olympics in Los Angeles (1984), Atlanta (1996) and Nagano (1998).   At Nagano, the route passed many of the concentration camps where he had been imprisoned.

A Houston Chronicler sports writer called it “the very best thing I saw on sports television, period, in 1998.” The press universally praised the 35-minute piece, which later won an Emmy – Source USC News by Elizabeth Segal

The transformative experience of the imprisonment was not immediate for Zamparini.  He suffered from the effects of what is now commonly called Posttraumatic stress disorder.  He became an alcoholic and was at the point when his wife threatened with divorce before the cycle of his experience started to turn to complete the circle.  It was his wife who initiated the conversion after her own conversion to Christianity.

Instead of divorce, his wife turned the other cheek and found solace in the sermons of a preacher named Billy Graham. She tried to get her husband to convert too. At first, he was resistant. “I hated all that holy roller stuff,” he says disdainfully. When Zamperini finally went to a meeting, he was surprised to find Graham “so handsome and clean-cut, not one of those wheezer types.”

During that sermon, Zamperini had an epiphany. “I momentarily flashed to the life raft in the Pacific, the moment when I prayed to God that if He spared my life, that I’d dedicate it to service and prayer – you know all those promises you make when you’re in a jam,” Zamperini says. “I realized then that I’d turned my back on my promises and on God. And when I got off my knees that day in the tent, I knew I would be through with drinking, smoking and revenge fantasies. I haven’t had a nightmare since.”

Inspired by Graham and the Bible, Zamperini toured as a public speaker, channeling his energies into messages of forgiveness. He revisited Japan in 1950, and before large forums of Japanese civilians (as well as the Tokyo Trojan Club), he spread the gospel. – Source USC News by Elizabeth Segal

What I’m learning from absorbing these two stories is there is a closure to their experience.  It was not just a matter of getting through it, it was to put a meaning to it and they felt it was worthy to share their own epiphanies with the rest of us.  They are teaching us how to survive, not just under extreme conditions, but in our day-to-day struggles with our own selves; that conscience that leads us to know what to do and what to say in situations that challenge us to put up our guards rather than open our hearts.

I feel I haven’t lived enough to be worthy of telling everything I want to show in a play.

Sometimes I just tell myself – Oh heck, just get on with it.  Get on with life and forget about your conscience.  (I jest!)

2 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, February 26, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    This was a great post, loved everything about it! And I’ve read UNBROKEN, what a story, what a book.

  • By Diane Grant, March 3, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

    Very moving. Thanks. I’ll have to read UNBROKEN, too. I’d never heard of it and it sounds amazing.

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