At the age of 19, Louis Zamperini qualified for the 5000 meter run, earning a place in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
In 1941, with the world in the throes of global conflict, Louis enlisted in the United States Army Air Force, earning a commission as a second lieutenant and deployed to the Pacific as a bombardier. While on a search for a lost aircraft and crew in 1943, mechanical difficulties caused Zamperini’s plane to crash into the Pacific Ocean, 850 miles west of Oahu, Hawaii, killing eight of the eleven men aboard.
With little food and no water, Zamperini, Russell Philips and Francis McNamara subsisted on rainwater and small fish eaten raw. After 33 days at sea, McNamara succumbed to their ordeal, leaving Zamperini and Philips alone and adrift.
On the 47th day, Zamperini and Phillips reached the Marshall Islands and found themselves captive of the Japanese Navy. Following 42 days of internment there, they were transferred to the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Ōfuna, then on to Tokyo’s Ōmori POW camp, and eventually, to the Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan.
One particular guard wanted to make an example of the eternally optimistic Olympian Zamperini. “The Bird” – as he was called – dedicated the next two years to breaking Louis, physically, mentally, emotionally spiritually, with verbal and physical cruelty.
Yet Zamperini remained; unbroken.
What was it that bound him together? The strength, stamina and training of an Olympic athlete?
What enabled him to handle both the duress of being lost in the Pacific and the abject terror of internment at the hands of a cruel enemy?
To find the will to endure. To exert himself for a long period of time, resisting, withstanding and recovering from, fatigue, trauma and even wounds of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual nature.
When Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton left South Georgia Island on December 5, 1914 in a bid to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent, no level of preparation could have anticipated the challenges that would confront he and his crew of 28. Disaster struck the expedition early when its ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed. For nearly two months, Shackleton’s team camped on a large, flat ice floe, hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Island approximately 250 miles away.
Several failed attempts to march across the ice led them to encamp on another floe entrusting the drift would take them towards a safe landing. By mid March, Patience Camp was within 60 miles of the island, yet still separated by impassable ice. In early April the floe split, leaving Shackleton no option but to order the crew into the lifeboats.
Five harrowing days at sea later, the exhausted men landed their three lifeboats at Elephant Island , 346 miles from where the Endurance sank. This would be the first time they had stood on solid ground for 497 days. Nearly another year would pass before Shackleton and his entire crew could begin their journey back home.
Not a single man was lost.
What was it about Sir Shackleton that continually rallied him from within despite his expedition’s dire straits?
Or – some quality?
A nature that allowed for an uncommon level of patience to guide him, enabling him to remain calm, centered, deliberate, and on task?
What set them apart from all others?
Louis Zamperini and Ernest Shackleton found a way – within themselves – to transcend their circumstances, even though both were captive to unforgiving environments that offered very little to support any form of life.
They each possessed a state of mind reinforced by an unparalleled level of emotional and spiritual resilience.
Reinforced by a belief in themselves – and others – that grew into something far more than just a feeling.
More than perseverance.
That point you reach where you just “know”.
That place you get to – where you can accept, act, move forward and achieve – even the unimaginable – because deep inside – you just know.
Being stripped down to their core by their circumstance – whether on the ice or as a POW – did not mean failure or defeat for Shackleton and Zamperini.
Nor does it for you.
For each trying or unforgiving circumstance we enter, cross and exit has within it, a specific purpose.
To remove some of your layers.
The veneer that can accumulate over time and diminish some of your best features.
And persevering through adversity is how they come to be stripped away.
Revealing the best that you are – even when you think you are at your worst. .
Even as you find yourself in the midst of a wide, inhospitable expanse or within the emptiness of confinement and those moments begin to close in about you, just remember.
All is not lost.
With some courage, you need not merely drift or be held hostage.
You can access that transcendent quality that powers your ability to persist.
Your own “will” generator.
To do more than just simply hang on.
Merely get through it.
A level of perseverance that leads you to embrace those unforgiving circumstances.
To find someway to somehow thrive despite the intensity of the adversity.
To become more than what you were at the start.
Because you just know it.