It is not a word we use very often. But we do know virile, and virility, and virtue— each are words rooted in the ancient word, vir. What is a man? What does it mean to be human? Who are we? What are we like? What are we supposed to be like?
Like thousands of others, I went to see the film, “Unbroken,” over the holidays. Having read the book a few years ago, I was intrigued when Angelina Jolie announced that she was bringing the story into the cinema—and of course, I wondered what she would do with Louis Zamperini’s life, the unbroken man who became so very broken.
The movie poster promises a story about survival, resilience and redemption, and that is the amazing story that Laura Hillenbrand wrote in her incredibly-researched, well-written biography. I was captivated— even if I was also horrified.
I still remember one Saturday morning, reading in bed, and leafing through pages. My good wife Meg who knows me well, said, “What are you doing? You don’t read like that.” She knows that I am a first-page-to-the-last-page reader, taking in everything from beginning to end— so she wondered. I told her that I was just trying to see how much longer Zamperini and his buddies were going to be stuck at sea in a raft. After even a few days of following their travail, I was worn out, having no idea that they would be men at sea for 47 days!
I groaned when I saw that I had pages and pages left to read, before they found land. But refusing to read ahead, I had no idea that being lost at sea was its own strange grace, as sighting land meant that they would now be prisoners-of-war, destined for long days and months suffering under the brutal oversight of the Japanese army.
Watching the film, I thought a lot about the virtue of resilience. It isn’t cheap, and we cannot dismiss it as small. It is so very hard to keep at anything that matters; most of us don’t. As Zamperini says, again and again and again, “If I can take it, I can make it.” The film only begins to account for the malicious treatment that he and his fellow prisoners experienced, but it tries. It was awful, and tragic, and horrible— and if we can take it, we will make it to the end of the film.
So what do we do with this story? As one friend said to me, “It’s not a very happy night out…” The film is full of the glories and the ruins of the human condition, painfully presented. What does it mean for us? For me, it raises several questions, all surrounding the strangely rich word, vir.
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a human being? Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve as we are, we have been pondering this for a long time. Thousands of years ago, from the earliest sources we have, we read of people trying to answer this question. If vir means “man,” then “virtue” points us in the direction of what it means to be a man, to our true end as human beings.
Vices take us in the other direction. Not “little vices” after all, the word “vicious” stands in relation to “virtuous,” just as vice does to virtue. When we see it that way, we realize that “vicious” is a harder word, always meaning something awful, something destructive, something that will hurt. It is important to understand that every virtue has a corresponding vice, and we either become more human, or less human, over the course of life. Flawed virtues keep us from flourishing, from being fully and wholly human, perverting us and having destructive consequences for everyone else.
Zamperini is offered as a man of rare resilience, of great courage. His chief tormentor, the “Bird” as he was known in the prison camp, was a man born by his bravado, his false courage, his twisted and distorted courage. Simply said, he was a vicious man, wrecking havoc and horror wherever he went, whatever he did.
When Jolie’s story is done, we have spent a long time in the presence of a virtuous man, a remarkably “unbroken” man as she offers him. Where her telling of the tale suffers is that she only nods at the brokenness, which is also integral to the story. With a few words of postscript, we hear something of what happened after the war, with Zamperini’s descent into depression, his life imploding, his manliness breaking. At that critical point, Hillenbrand is a more honest story-teller, insisting that we pay attention to the longer, deeper, truer story.
In reality, none of us can “take it till we make it” in the push-and-shove of the wounded world that is ours. We fall down. We stumble. We are clay-footed. We not only see through-a-glass darkly, but worse, we live through one too.
What does it mean to be a man? The virtues point us in the direction of our true humanity— so justice, temperance, prudence, and courage show us the way to being human. But being courageous isn’t enough, at the end of the day; resilience, by itself, is stoicism, and that falls short of what it means to be fully human. As hard as it is to “take it,” and sometimes it is incredibly hard to take it, as this film shows, against the ravages of the world, the flesh, and the devil, we need more— which is why the wisest ones have argued that faith, hope and love are virtues that complete the story. They did so for Louis Zamperini, the unbroken man who became broken— and broken as he was, his great need was to be made whole.
Survival. Resilience. Redemption. The poster gets that right, and we should too.