I keep a running list each year of every book I read, writing down the titles as I complete them. There’s a definite theme in 2017: almost all the books I’ve read have been about World War II. And thanks to all my reading (and watching!) I’ve gained three new heroes and role models who I’ve come to love and respect so much.
I don’t know about you, but when I read about somebody and absolutely fall in love with them, I want to be like them. I’m inspired by their stories and I want to soak up their wisdom. After reading their biographies and/or autobiographies, this is how I feel about Dick Winters, Shifty Powers, and Louis Zamperini. Winters commanded the famous paratroopers of Easy Company (AKA the Band of Brothers) and Powers was one of his subordinates, while Zamperini–an Olympic athlete, American bombadier, and Japanese POW–was the subject of the book and movie Unbroken.Here are three things I learned from each of these incredible men…
Dick Winters: Everything Is Going to Be Okay
Major Dick Winters was, in many ways, the prime example of “Greatest Generation” manhood. He was clean-cut, hard-working, self-disciplined, and confident in himself and his abilities. He went out of his way to take care of his men, share in their deprivations, and discreetly protect them from brainless, haphazard orders–and they loved him for it. His integrity, quiet kindness, and diligence were as legendary as his skill in battle.
Winters’ motto was “Hang Tough.” He said it to the men of Easy Company so often that they started saying it to each other, and still said it to each other as old men at reunions and over the phone. But there’s more to the “hang tough” philosophy than just perservering through difficult situations with your principles intact. Decades after the war, an elderly Winters clarified his simple encouragement in an interview at his home in Hershey, Pennsylvania:
“I have one message to all: hang tough. And I mean by saying ‘hang tough’: do your best everyday, whether it’s in school or at your job or wherever you are…You don’t have to know all the answers–no way. Don’t expect that of yourself. Just do your best. Satisfy yourself so [that] at the end of the day, you can look yourself in the mirror…and say honestly to yourself, ‘Today I did my best.’ And if you do that, you’re being honest and everything is going to be okay.”
For someone who’s struggled all her life with perfectionism and comparing myself with others, this has been such a balm to my soul. I don’t have to get it all right or get it all done every single day. Sometimes things just shove their way into my schedule, or exhaustion takes over, or the words turn sluggish in my brain–but as long as I’m not procrastinating and I’m actively pursuing the life God has laid out for me to the best of my ability, it’ll be okay.
In moments of panic and anxiety, I’ve been able to sit down, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and whisper to myself: “Hang tough. Do your best. Everything is going to be okay.” It calms me down and helps me focus–especially if I just quietly imagine Dick Winters saying it to me (or if I actually watch the interview where he says it).
Call me sentimental, but it really does give me just a little bit more courage.
Shifty Powers: Take Joy in the Small Things
Darrell “Shifty” Powers was Easy Company’s best sharpshooter. “It just doesn’t pay to go against Shifty when he’s got a rifle,” a comrade once said while standing over a Nazi soldier Shifty shot right between the eyes from a huge distance. And yet, in spite of his deadly skill, he was the quintessential small-town Southern man: gentle, funny, and down-to-earth. The whole company loved him, even to the point of rigging a lottery at the end of the war so he could get a ticket home before the rest of them.
Like many other WWII veterans, Shifty suffered from severe flashbacks and nightmares after the war–but according to author Marcus Brotherton in an article he wrote for The Art of Manliness, there were three important things Shifty did to regain his confidence:
- He went to work (giving himself “a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and order to his days”)
- He gave back (investing in his family and community)
- He made his home his place of refuge (cultivating a quiet, joyful life “that involved family, home, and hobbies”)
I’d add a fourth element to that list: Shifty’s faith in and acceptance of Christ, after which his nightmares miraculously stopped.
Confidence is something I’ve never had in abundance. I’ve always been way too worried about what people think of me, what my life will look like twenty years down the road, and if my life is small because I like it or because I haven’t been brave.
Here, however, was a man who led a very quiet life. In fact, after spending a few years working in California, he and his wife agreed that life was just “too fast” there and headed straight back to their rural hometown in Virginia where they both grew up. After that, Shifty never lived more than a few hours from where he was born–and yet his was a long, purposeful, joy-filled life that revolved around God, family, and community. His life was small because he liked it and because he was brave. And this little hobbit, happiest in her own home and small-town community, is greatly encouraged by that.
Louis Zamperini: Forgive, Forgive, Forgive
I’ve known the basics of Captain Louis Zamperini’s story for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading or seeing Unbroken until just recently. I spent most of the book in open-mouthed astonishment. The man was a walking, talking miracle! He started out as a juvenile delinquent who transformed himself into a record-setting Olympic runner before enlisting in the Air Force and becoming a bombadier…only for his plane to crash in the Pacific Ocean during a rescue mission. Louis barely survived on a raft for 47 days, was captured by the Japanese, and spent two and a half years of quiet, persevering defiance in a POW camp, only to become a severely-depressed alcoholic after liberation.
That wasn’t the end of his story, though. After listening to a Billy Graham sermon, Louis gave his life to Jesus Christ and became a different person, brimming with joy and compassion. Once so deeply embittered against his former captors that he planned on going back to Japan to murder one in particular, Louis instead went back to share the Gospel with them.
While listening to a 2014 interview this week, I was deeply convicted by what Louis said about forgiveness:
“If you don’t forgive, it’s eating on your soul. Forgiveness must be complete, no matter who the person is. I’ve had a few enemies even in the last few years, and the only way I can forgive ’em is to pray for ’em. And that’s what I do, I pray for ’em. You just have to buckle up and go on to greater things.”
Looking back, I know I haven’t felt true forgiveness towards people who’ve wronged me and those I love. Genuine heartbreak has hardened into bitterness, cynicism, and resentment. It really has eaten on my soul. I’ve known, deep down, that I wasn’t living in forgiveness and that I needed to let it go…but hearing Louis Zamperini talk about forgiving people who were so much crueler to him than anyone has ever been to me? It left me asking God to soften those scarred, calloused places in my own heart, and to begin the hard, slow process of disciplining and turning my angry thoughts into prayers for those who’ve hurt me.
It won’t be an easy road…but I have a feeling the Lord used Louis Zamperini this week to set my feet on a healing path, just as he’s used Dick Winters and Shifty Powers to encourage and comfort me as I continue along in my own life story.