A purpose overcomes the horror

By Daniel C. Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 10 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Olympic and military legend Louis Zamperini presents the first game ball as the University of Utah prepares to play USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum in their first ever PAC-12 game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Among the most significant books to emerge out of the Nazi Holocaust was the Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" — originally published in 1946 as "Trotzdem Ja zum Leben Sagen" ("Say 'Yes' to Life Despite Everything").

Survivor of 2½ years in the concentration camps at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, Frankl observed that a sense of meaning or purpose was essential to living through such horrific ordeals. Without hope, seemingly strong men often died surprisingly quickly, while physically weak men who maintained faith or a belief in life's significance sometimes endured against apparently impossible odds.

On one occasion, Frankl recalled, "We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious 'Yes' in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. 'Et lux in tenebris lucent' — and the light shineth in the darkness."

A similar experience occurs in Laura Hillenbrand's remarkable 2010 book "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption."

It's about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner before the war. When his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean in May 1943 during a rescue mission, eight crewmen died outright; their tail-gunner survived the crash, but died 33 days later. Louie and the pilot, however, drifted through shark-infested waters for 47 days, with little food and virtually no water, in a failing inflatable raft.

During those horrible weeks, the two men experienced a moment that they would never forget. As Hillenbrand writes, "It was an experience of transcendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fish broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

"For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren't hungry or thirsty. They were unaware of the approach of death. …

"Such beauty … was too perfect to have come by mere chance," Louie concluded. "That day in the center of the Pacific was … a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil."

Japanese forces in the Marshall Islands eventually captured the two men, who were viciously tortured, starved and abused in various military camps for the remainder of the war.

Still distinctly irreligious, Louis Zamperini returned to the United States, married, and then, like so many other traumatized former prisoners, began to fall apart. He turned to alcohol. His marriage was collapsing. Finally, at the repeated insistence of his wife, Cynthia, he attended a Billy Graham rally.

He hated it. He felt judged and condemned, and grew angry. He "grabbed Cynthia's arm, stood up and bulled his way from the tent."

But she persuaded him to go back a second time. Once again, though, he tried to leave. In fact, he almost made it to the exit. But he turned around.

Doing so transformed his life. He remembered that epiphany on the raft, and multiple life-saving miracles. He declared his faith in Christ.

His nightmares and horrifying flashbacks stopped. He poured his alcohol down the kitchen sink, threw his cigarettes and his secret stash of girlie magazines into the garbage.

I have no idea whether Laura Hillenbrand — who also wrote "Seabiscuit," which inspired the Academy Award-nominated 2003 film — is religious or not. But the account of redemption and forgiveness that ensues is truly stunning.

"Religion," Christopher Hitchens liked to say, "poisons everything." Readers of "Unbroken" will likely disagree. Louis Zamperini and his wife certainly would.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.

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