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What Unbroken and Wild Taught Me
Fresh-faced and full of Dreams
To Serve With Honor
When my father and two of my uncles posed for pictures before shipping off to serve in the Navy during WWII, they didn't know what lie before them. They had no idea of the expectations or locations of where they would be placed. Information wasn't shared for fear of breeches of confidence. The Naval community fought on land, in the air and in the sea. My father was fortunate enough to have been stationed as a soldier that didn't have to fight in combat. However, he did see his share of bloodied bodies, injured soldiers and witnessed the loss of comrades. He worked on a Naval sub and because of his history of working in a reputable restaurant in his youth, was given the role of cook for the soldiers. He also became a flight instructor; teaching a couple of our nation's astronauts how to fly jets and other soldiers how to navigate their fighter planes over enemy territory. If my father did fight in any type of combat, he never divulged this to me. Nor did he ever have anything but respect for his position in the Navy and for all of his fellow servicemen that fought during the war.
To my father, fighting for his country was the utmost privilege and honor. My Uncles George and Harry had the same devotion to our country. In fact, my Uncle Harry was a war hero; saving over 25 men from drowning after their submarine had been torpedoed and destroyed in the ocean. He received the Purple Heart for his actions.
I look at pictures of my uncles and my father before they headed off to fight in the war and see innocence in their fresh faces. Their smiles held a youthful giddiness and their eyes shone with playfulness; I am sure because they and all of those joining the war believed that the United States would storm in, end the war and it would be finished. The men returning from the war had a different look in their eyes and their childlike smiles and laughter were now replaced with grimaces and stories of horror.
My father, my uncles, my neighbors and the women that supported and aided the war from home all had tales to tell about their experiences with WWII and I listened and absorbed the ideals of our Constitution and what it meant to have love of country as well as feel the honor of being a citizen of the USA.
Not all who fought came back. Not all who came back lived functional lives afterward. War changes everyone that is directly involved. My uncle that saved others during the war was one of the men that couldn't save himself from the nightmares and the decline of his personal life. A life is a life. No matter what side one is fighting from. The level of responsibility that soldiers carry with them is insurmountable. Even one life lost can cause guilt within one's mind that can continue to haunt them years after the event.
When the movie Unbroken became available for viewing at the theater, I was nervous about watching it. I knew it would have horrific scenes of abuse, violent situations and that I would constantly wonder how much of what I was viewing was also viewed through my father's eyes. I was not prepared to be so emotionally moved by this film. I also did not expect to find a personal hero in Louis Zamperini. I knew the film was based on his harrowing experience in the war but I had no idea the amount of torture that he had endured, only to find the strength to continue on; despite living in what seemed like the bowels of Satan.
If I Can Take It, I Can Make It
Louis had a tumultuous youth comprised of stealing, cheating and conflicts with the law. He had one steadfast constant in his life; the love of his family. It was through his family's love and his brother that he enlisted the mantra of "If I can take it, I can make it". The verbal and physical abuse he endured as a child seemed to "ready" him for his future. First, becoming an Olympic athlete and enduring the mental and physical challenges necessary to represent our country at the German Olympics. Then, crashing in the ocean, surviving life at sea for well over a month; only to be taken captive by the enemy and tortured at a POW camp for the duration of the war. Watching your comrades die or be executed, knowing that you are helpless in giving them any aide. Living in conditions not suitable for sewer rats and exerting physical strength that would appear no true human could ever find within themselves.
There were countless times during the movie where I thought to myself that I would have quit and given up. Louis never did. I couldn't understand where his strength of mind and body was coming from. It was apparent that Louis had a religious background and faith in God. However, his approach to many things in the beginning seemed to place his faith as a standby item, while his comrades demonstrated their faith openly, often praying before, during and after situations they encountered. It was at some point in the POW camp that Louis allowed his faith to be a driving force; promising God that he would commit his life to Him if he were given the chance to be "free".
I believe in God. I pray and while I don't go to church weekly, I never once doubt that I have an entity looking over me at all times. I have friends that practice different genres of religion than I do. Never have I ever questioned that their God is a different God than mine. Our Gods may not have the same physical facade or name but in my opinion, our God is the same.
As I watched Unbroken, I felt my religious convictions were being challenged. I was the one doing the challenging. I thought of the many times during my life that I wanted to quit. I focused on what I didn't have or what I couldn't accomplish and there have been more times than I'd like to admit that I toyed with the idea of giving up on life completely because it all seemed too hard and too much to bear.
Before me on the big screen was the story of a man (in fact, many men) that was starved, beaten, placed in complete darkness with no outside contact, who lay and slept next to the dead, was treated like an unwanted cancer and yet he continued to fight to survive. I couldn't fathom why he kept trying. At certain points of the film, it appeared that his fight was all for nothing; that death was eminent and he had wasted his time and would die with a feeling of hopelessness. Yet, he kept fighting. Pushing. Defying.
As Louis 's story unfolded, my heart began to open up. I couldn't stop the tears from welling up into deep pools before they exploded and descended down my cheeks. I was crying for my father, my uncles and people in my past that had been part of this war. I was crying for Louis and all of the servicemen that sacrificed so much for our country. I was crying for my own failures and lost opportunities where I chose to take the safer route or to be un-involved.
I think the part of Louis's life that shocked and touched me the most was not his capacity to endure suffering but his capacity to forgive. He somehow found peace within his heart and forgave his captors and torturers. I realized at that point that Louis had indeed touched the face of God and held the values that so many of us want to believe we demonstrate of loving one another; even our enemies. I do not believe that at this time in my life, I have the foresight and grace that Louis Zamperini demonstrated during and at the end of his life. I pray that I can aspire to become someone that can reflect this person of such fortitude and inspiration.
The movie Wild, you may think, is nothing like Unbroken. If follows the journey of a woman that has become self destructive; using heroin, alcohol and sex (to name a few) to numb herself from the things that are painful in her life. She sets out to hike the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) in order to "find" herself and during this year long venture, she internally combats her own devils and constantly questions her purpose for being.
On a personal level, I found this movie to be a complement to Unbroken. While Unbroken demonstrated the horrors of war and the unmerciful treatment of humans, it also forced me to look at my life and question my willingness to be a participant in determining my own future. I watched in awe as a man showed strength and belief in what would be despite mental and physical torture and the portrayal of a bleak and non-existent future.
Wild was not as emotionally overpowering but spoke to me in a similar way. Cheryl Strayed was her own abuser. She created a prison for herself that seemed inescapable at times but she felt that she didn't deserve to be set free.
While Unbroken reached me at a spiritual level, Wild tapped into my female psyche. Being a daughter, sister and mother and what those roles mean or have meant in the different stages of my life.
I, unlike Cheryl, have never abused alcohol, used sex as a means of recreation or used drugs. However, I did grow up understanding abuse, having a mother that meant the world to me and one that I idolized and I am a sister to my 9 siblings. I also have two children and I am constantly questioning my actions and my behavior and the impact that I have had on their life. Wild is a story that initiated my allowing permission of myself a sense of forgiveness for screwing up situations that I would have liked to have done over.
I was raised in a very strict, religious family and I adhered to the Golden Rule. Without question, everyone was more important than I was. I was to give unto others and withstand inappropriate treatment from others because I was to love everyone. I was scared to death of going to Hell and feared the wrath at home if my parents were contacted by a nosy neighbor complaining about my behavior. I was targeted by many adults to become a nun because of my constant good deeds and giving lifestyle. However, I lived with guilt that I was never doing enough. I was overwhelmed with feelings of self preservation that by no means were wrong but I was criticized for them in the little society I existed in.
When I entered college, I began to lose some of my naivete and I also lost my virginity and virginal ways of how I viewed the world. I found out that not everyone was nice, nor did they deserve your good intentions if all they had to offer were actions that beat down your self esteem.
One of the most difficult life passages for me was to view my parents from the "outside" and see that they too were filled with flaws and that they were not much different than I was. I realized that with all of the hopes and dreams that I possessed, they had at one time, held just as many within their heart and were unable to fulfill them.
It wasn't until I became a married woman, then a mother, then a divorced/single mom that I truly understood the sacrifices adults have to make and the loss of dreams that will never be fulfilled. The combination of my "Pollyanna" beliefs and the rules of my church and finally the fear of punishment for not being "perfect" led me to a similar frame of mind of not wanting to care about myself and not wanting to try anymore... I saw that within Cheryl Strayed in Wild.
Instead of abusing drugs and allowing my body to become a sex toy, I sabotaged myself in other ways. Food is my drug of choice. Yelling at my loved ones. Resigning myself to a life of physical aches and pains and obesity so that "no one" will want to love me, especially myself. I believe that we, as women, have been raised to believe that we have to be good at everything. We need to be able to provide, be desirable, prove our intelligence and capabilities, compete with each other, have the perfect children and the perfect family. Cook, clean and have a show piece looking home. Any time that we waiver from this "code" we feel inadequate and even guilty that we aren't doing it right.
There were some scenes in the movie that brought me to tears. Cheryl's flashbacks of her mother opened up pathways of memories for me. Her mother was always smiling and laughing or singing and dancing. Cheryl often criticized her mother for what she considered to be a false sense of joy. Her mother's comments of "If there is one thing I hope to teach you it is to find the best in yourself" or "What if my life had been different? Would I change a thing? No. I wouldn't have you. Good comes from everything." choked me up because I recall my own mom saying similar statements to me. I teared up knowing that I too, have said the exact sentiments to my own children when they were questioning my choices in life.
I also experienced fear during the movie when Cheryl is unsure of the intentions of different men in the movie that she encounters on her hike. Memories of feeling helpless around certain neighbors and adults in my youth came rushing back and I became panic stricken for a few seconds wondering how she would react; would she fight back or take the role of victim?
As Cheryl screamed, swore and at times dragged herself through her journey I could identify with her feelings. At one point she screams loudly into the mountains and screams obscenities. There is a moment where she stops... she feels as if she isn't allowed to express her anger and she stops for a second before screaming even louder. I have felt stifled in my ability to express myself for fear of offending someone or being misunderstood. It is a terrible feeling; not being able to express what is in your heart and on your mind because of fear. I also swear a lot. Not in my professional world but in my private one. It is a release that feels good to no one else but me. I save it for those private moments when I feel especially helpless or vulnerable. My kids are older and they hear it too. It shocks them at times and I try to explain that it is meant as only an outlet for me. It has no meaning.
I want my life to have meaning. Toward the end of her journey, Cheryl asks herself, "What if I forgive myself?" This is a question that I ask of myself all the time. Can I forgive myself for my mistakes? For being imperfect? For not living up to the standards of others?
At some point in our life we need to realize that we are perfectly imperfect and that this kind of "being" is okay. Watching Wild inched me in this direction. I moved a little closer to acceptance of my flaws, my shortcomings and most importantly my strengths.