Grace and Perseverance
I recently read a book called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption—the incredible story of Louis Zamperini, a WWII hero. He wasn’t always a hero—he began his life as a very rebellious kid, became a delinquent, and gradually straightened himself out and became an Olympic long distance runner.
When WWII began he became part of the crew on a bomber. Once, when out on a bombing raid, his plane sustained several hundred bullet holes before returning safely. Then, on a mission over the Pacific, his plane crashed, killing 9 of the 12 crew members. The three survivors drifted on a raft without food or water for 45 days, catching occasional fish and scooping rain water to just barely stay alive.
The sharks were their constant companions, and often they had to fight them off with their oars. Once they were shot at by a Japanese plane, so they jumped into the water to avoid the bullets, only to be attacked by sharks. After one of the three died, Louie and the other survivor finally landed on the Marshall Islands, where they were promptly captured by the Japanese and put in an internment camp.
Louie in particular became the personal target for a very sadistic camp commander, who literally beat him daily and made his life beyond miserable for his two years in captivity. For me, even after reading many books on the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, it was hard to read about what he went through.
How he didn’t just give up and die is an open question. He didn’t believe in God, and perhaps the only thing that helped him get through it was his incredible perseverance. Maybe he was born with it. Maybe he was, in part, just really stubborn. He also had a strong streak of resentment, and perhaps the desire for revenge kept him going. But without his perseverance he surely would have died.
After he came home from the internment camps he had severe PTSD. He was also bitter, began drinking too much, and became violent. He also had regular flashbacks, and horrible nightmares every night, where he relived the beatings he had received as a prisoner. One night he dreamed he was strangling his tormentor, only to wake up finding himself strangling his wife.
His wife was about to leave him because he wouldn’t stop drinking, but then she found God through Billy Graham. She pleaded with him to come to a meeting, but when he did he was very closed. She demanded he come again, which he did, but he started to walk out before it was over. Then, on the way out the door he had a very vivid flashback of a day he was on the raft, dying of thirst, where he pleaded with God, telling him if he saved him he would devote the rest of his life to God. Just when he finished his pleading it started raining, and they got enough water to survive.
As Louie came out of the flashback he realized he had completely forgotten his pledge, and something happened inside of him. He then turned around and walked back in the meeting. And when he went home, he threw out all his alcohol, cigarettes, and girlie magazines. From that point he began a new life, speaking to groups throughout the world, and devoting the rest of his life to God. In other words, in a seeming moment he went from being a bitter atheist to a warm-hearted believer. He said his nightmares completely ended, as did his flashbacks, as well as his drinking and fighting and womanizing.
What actually happened in that moment to allow such a radical transformation? This question has been very interesting for me to contemplate. I’ve never had an experience exactly like this one, and I don’t pretend to fully understand it, other than when we can fully surrender to the moment and give up our attachment to “me and my views,” then it’s possible to have a moment of grace. Yet, a very important part of our teaching is that our personal conditioning is deeply embedded in the physical body. This is why it takes a long time, and strong perseverance, to work through our conditioning. It takes coming back again and again with meticulous attention to feeling what’s there in the body. Over time, as we bring awareness to our conditioning, awareness gradually heals.
Regarding the impressive nature of Zamperini’s experience– it’s important to note that we don’t really know how deeply transforming it actually was. I have no doubt he changed, but who knows how completely his PTSD disappeared overnight. Some experts say this is highly unlikely. Regardless, from my own experience, and I know this was similar for Elizabeth, when we had opening, or so-called enlightenment experiences, they were essentially just relatively brief experiences of deep insight into the nature of reality. They didn’t wipe out our conditioning; all of the Me-stuff still had to be worked with. The main difference was there was a bigger view—there was an understanding of what was possible.
Unfortunately, quite a few students who have had opening experiences used them to push all of their Me-stuff underground—basically ignoring it as if it didn’t exist, or as if they were above it. The consequence of trying to ignore or suppress our Me-stuff should be obvious to everyone. What we resist will nonetheless persist, and we’ll eventually have to pay the price. I’m not saying this happened with Zamperini—the truth is I don’t really know his actual situation. But anyone who still holds onto the belief that one big experience will wipe out their conditioning forever more is most likely bound for disappointment.
My own view is that yes, there can certainly be moments of grace, possibly even big ones. But we can’t count on them. Nor can we seek them out. Perhaps the most we can do is simply be open to them. In the meantime, perseverance is still the key to the gradual transformative path of practice. There may be no lightning-like transformation, but the gradual three-fold maturing can still bring great benefit. This three-fold maturing is first, the slow uncovering of the ego—all the ways our Me-stuff keeps us stuck—so that it no longer dictates how we feel and live. Second, we can witness the deepening of basic awareness and a sense of presence. And third, we can cultivate the awakening of the heart—bearing the fruits of increased appreciation, kindness and compassion.
As in everything, there is no either/or—either grace or effort. Much more likely there is a balance. How that balance will manifest will depend in part on our own individual make-up and experience. Regardless, I believe we should never underestimate the need to persevere, and to persevere for a long time, even in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Nor do I believe we should underestimate the value of remaining open—open to the unknown, to the mystery. Without remaining open, our lives will most likely remain very small.