How to Forgive: Lessons from “Unbroken”

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Lessons from the man who forgave the unforgiveable

The movie “Unbroken” is a heartbreaking depiction of the journey of Louis Zamperini to hell and back. An Army bombardier during World War II, Mr. Zamperini was captured by the Japanese, imprisoned, enslaved, beaten and tortured for more than two years. What the movie doesn’t depict is that, broken in body and mind, he returned home after the war and went to an even darker place of anger, hatred and revenge. He drank to stop the nightmares. He treated his family so badly his wife threatened divorce. He dreamed about returning to Japan and killing the men who had tormented him. So how was this beleaguered man able to survive the aftermath of this terrible ordeal? That’s the most astonishing part of the story. Forgiveness.

If we look closely at his story (and much of the really important content of the book was not included in the movie), we find truths about forgiveness. Let’s look at this story to learn how to forgive.

Forgiveness doesn’t minimize the damage or condone the behavior. Mr. Z’s account of his imprisonment doesn’t flinch from the truth. His treatment at the hands of the Japanese Army was beyond brutal, and he records it in the most painful detail. He experienced the unendurable, endured the unforgiveable. Yet, he forgave.

Forgiveness doesn’t need to be preceded by an apology. The guards and officers of the prison did not come to Mr. Z to admit they had been wrong and ask for forgiveness. They were given forgiveness anyway. Forgiveness can be, sometimes must be, unilateral.

Forgiveness is an act of will, not emotion. Mr. Z describes how, after an experience of faith, he was compelled to forgive those who had harmed him. He didn’t wait for the loving feelings to come. He decided.

Forgiveness sets free the person who forgives. The moment Mr. Z decided to forgive those who hurt him so terribly, his nightmares stopped. His drinking stopped. His anger vanished. He went back to Japan only five years after war’s end to meet personally with the prison guards as he could to tell them he forgave them. Perhaps those men didn’t know they needed forgiveness. Weren’t they just doing their job? They might not even have remembered him. So did his forgiveness impact them? Maybe. Did his forgiveness change Mr. Z? Absolutely. He was no longer a victim of their brutality; he was a survivor, an overcomer.

It’s sobering to note that his arch nemesis, a man they called The Bird, refused to meet with Mr. Z. We don’t know why The Bird refused; he might have been afraid of the anger and hatred he expected to receive. Does his refusal to accept this forgiveness diminish the power of forgiveness? Not for Mr. Z

Few people will ever experience the horrors that Mr. Z did. That doesn’t dilute the truth that we’ve all been hurt in one way or another. But sadly, few of us will experience the freedom that true forgiveness brings.

I’m not writing this as a person who is an expert at forgiveness. I struggle with this like you do. But I have learned, sometimes late in the game, that forgiving the person who offended me is much better for me than holding on to anger and resentment. The research is clear that forgiveness is an important component not only of emotional health but physical health as well. In the recovery community, it’s stated this way: “Bitterness (unforgiveness) is a poison I swallow hoping you will die.” Our unforgiveness is destructive to ourselves.

My hope is that you will stop swallowing the poison of bitterness and unforgiveness. Take a lesson from Mr. Zamperini and learn how to forgive. Acknowledge your need to forgive the one who offended you. Decide to forgive. Even if the offender is now out of your life, has moved away, or died, or refuses to accept your forgiveness, forgiving them will change your heart, your health, your life.

“I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self destructive. If you hate somebody, you’re not hurting the person you hate, you’re hurting yourself. It’s a healing, actually, it’s a real healing…forgiveness.”   Louis Zamperini

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