Recently my thoughts turned to my father-in-law. Robert Ashby died over 25 years ago from the ravages of prostate cancer.
His dying was complicated when he was overdosed with a drug that rendered him deaf. As a physician I am still bothered that due to a medical error he was unable to hear his family say good-bye. While repeating again my disappointment in the heath-care system to "first, do no harm," my wife, her father's daughter, said, "I think that dad has gotten over it."
The book, "Unbroken," by Lauren Hillenbrand (Random House, $27), is the story of an Italian-American who got over more than a dosing mistake.
Louis Zamperini was the bombardier of the B-24 Green Hornet, which crashed in the South Pacific in May 1943. He and the pilot, Allen Phillips survived 46 days in an open raft with no stored food or water. A third survivor of the crash died at sea. They captured rainwater as best they could. They caught fish, killed and ate birds that landed on the raft. They survived a strafing by a Japanese bomber that put holes in the raft without hitting a soul. They endured shark attacks, equatorial blinding, burning sun, salt water blisters and sores, dehydration and starvation, lastly a typhoon, only to drift 3,000 miles west to Japanese occupied islands.
Taken prisoners, they were not congratulated for their record of endurance in an open raft. Instead they were imprisoned and like many other American and Allied personnel were subjected to the harshest of conditions. Brutally inhumane and sadistic torture was the norm.
There was one particularly barbaric guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, codename, the Bird. Zamperini became his No. 1 prisoner. Belt buckles to the face, sticks, baseball bats, blows of every kind and subhuman degradation slowly but effectively wrecked the body and mind of the prisoner.
Saved by the B-29 and two atomic bombs, the war finally, mercifully ended the endless abuse. After more than two years in enslaved captivity, the former POW had to wage another fight against his new enemy, post-traumatic stress disorder and its ally alcohol. Every night the demons, and especially the horrifying face of the Bird, came after him with all his weapons of pain, filth, terror and humiliation.
Reaching bottom, Louie was dragged against his will to the revival tent of a young preacher, Billy Graham. Before the service was over he stormed out only angrier. Somehow he was pulled again to the words of the evangelist and the scriptures. There was a miracle. He was transformed. He was able to let it all go: the sores, the smells, the sights, the shouts and worse the sickening of the soul.
"He felt something that he had never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized that it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over."
The healing was so complete Zamperini was even desirous to meet with the Bird, whose charges of war crimes were rescinded. Watanabe refused.
Today we're upset over issues of political conflict far less severe than daily torture.
In our anger can we forgive the poor for being a drain on our tax dollars? What about forgiving someone who is trying to feed his family and breaks the law to do it? Is forgiveness possible for someone with a different approach for a difficult societal problem? Can we forgive members of an opposing political party?
Forgiveness in the case of Louie Zamperini was a gift from God. Perhaps for our animosity of the opposite partisan philosophy we should seek divine assistance. Instead we rant and rave about the alternative point of view. If we pray for forgiveness for the corrupted ideas of others, they will do the same for us. Between both acts of forgiveness there could be a miracle, civil dialogue.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.