So many people have recommended Unbroken, the life story of Louie Zamperini–Olympic runner and Air Force bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, by Laura Hillenbrand to me over the past few months. It worked out perfectly that my mom had recently read it, so I curled up for many hours of my visit home for Christmas in front of the fireplace with it . I love history, but realized that my knowledge of the Pacific front of the war was incredibly small, which is sad to me because my grandfather was on the Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the Navy SEALS, in Japan. Hillenbrand’s book provided a well researched overview of what went on and some of the facts I learned in the book shocked me. The narrative arch in the book, though, took my breath away.
I wrote my last post about my struggle in thinking about the lost in war, and this one I realized is one about the survivors. It still leaves me thinking: at what cost will humans ever stop? I cannot imagine surviving through what these men faced as prisoners. It was impossible for me to read this story without feeling sick to my stomach about the complaints that arise about my own life circumstances. What stood out to me the most in reading this book is the incredible fortitude of the human spirit. It saddens me that this phrase might sound cliched, because if I look at the hardships people have faced faced throughout history and the fact that they have survived–be it a global war or a personal one–is truly miraculous. And in the case of surviving the war, making it home was only half of the battle:
“The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were a torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized. Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand…Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness. For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end,” (349).
In my city there are times that it feels like a superficial quest for outward beauty: to maintain the posture that every aspect of one’s life is meticulously curated. But, as most New Yorkers know, there is beauty in the broken and in the faces that no fashion magazine would ever run. There is beauty to be found in the mess and in the trying.
In my last post, I wrote about how wars are often fought for freedom of some sort, and that for the opposing forces there seems nothing left to do but to obliterate the other side. It seems to me as though this can stand for a metaphor for living–for those who can’t escape the messiness of being human, anyway. It feels as though my reading life is bleeding one book into the next, because I am about to finish Lit by Mary Karr, which is the story of her battle with alcoholism–finding freedom and everyday fighting against the blackness. I can’t help but think about how she needed to find her way to peace. I just saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (one of my favorite books) and was broken watching Oskar, the 11 year old main character who lost his father on 9/11, struggle and fight through his pain, in a way different from everyone else around him.
My students often complain about why they have to learn something that they think they will never have to use. I have set answers for every subject area, but my one for social studies is always that I think that the best president, and any kind of leader for that matter, will always be the one who not only looks anxiously into the future, but one who is able to look back into the past–understanding both the macro and micro horrors and hardships. For it is understanding–and experiencing–struggle that enables us to live and lead in a just, compassionate way. Louie Zamperini’s story was a reminder to me of many things, but the most heavy one to me was to know the stories that make up our collective past: to learn what others have been through and to let that lead me into a life of greater compassion and understanding–as well as hope for the moments when I find myself fighting a battle that seems greater than myself. The incredible part about it, to me, was that this was not a work of fiction–but rather, a demonstration of the patterns that great works of fiction try to portray.
I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby in one sitting a few weeks ago, as I was left sitting in the wake of my family leaving town. After suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, he could only blink his left eye. He composed the book in his head and dictated it by blinking his eye, with the help of Claude Mendibil. Of course, much has been said in the history of words about taking goodness for granted, but the way that Bauby approached his memories without being able to do anything physical about them was astounding–and the very existence of this book–of producing a creative work in his condition is the ultimate story of triumph and the power of art.
I’m struggling about responding to this book under the umbrella of not taking life for granted, for that feels so trite. What saves me from this, I hope, is the depth of pain with which he wrote–this book is no “go get ’em, pursue your dreams, you can accomplish anything” story. It distills the goodness of human existence while enduring physical impossibilities and deep existential struggle. No matter how shallow my own wrestling seemed in comparison, this memoir made me want to live actively remembering what is real and good and true–a theme that keeps repeating itself to me in recent months.
Here are three of my favorite excerpts from the book that underline the way that I want to live–and the kinds of things that keep popping up in every meaningful conversation I’ve had in the past month.
Taking joy in and being thankful for small pleasures, rather than constantly looking forward to the next big item or trip that money can buy.
The delectable moment when I sink into the tub is quickly followed by nostalgia for the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life. Armed with a cup of tea or Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, maneuvering the taps with my toes. Rarely do I feel my condition so cruelly as when I am recalling such pleasures.
Feeling deeply and not allowing busyness or struggle to make me feel numb.
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much or too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.
Living life with good people.
Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me deeply than all the rest. A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark…I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.