I’ve been wanting to write more, and post more regularly to this blog. Like lots of people, instead of working directly on my goal I’ve procrastinated by doing any number of different things that feel like they are related to my goal, but really aren’t. I’ve compiled lists of writing ideas, written out writing schedules, got a new writing program to use on my laptop, and the mother-of-all-time-wasters: “research.”
In an effort to not waste so much time clicking from article to article on the web, I decided I would shut the laptop and go back to reading some full length books. But you got to start slow, right? Not just jump into reading dense legal reference books. So I thought it would be good to read a book about overcoming adversity, since so many of the people who visit this site are trying, desperately, to overcome severe adversity at work.
The book I picked up was “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”. It is the story of Army Air Forces bomber Louis Zamperini overcoming adversity, then worse adversity, then even worse adversity, then repeatedly facing death.
Not to give anything away, but even if you just read the cover flap of this book you’ll learn that Louis crashes into the pacific and is presumed lost. He and another from his plane survive for weeks in a life raft, face down sharks, dehydration, starvation, and then right when it appears they are going to be saved they get shot at and taken prisoner by the Japanese military.
The first portion of this book, where Louis fights nature to stay alive, is inspiring in a traditional way. It’s not too different than any “lost at sea” or “shipwrecked” story that you’ve heard before except that Unbroken is so exceptionally well written. Where the book becomes not just inspiring, but also deeply troubling and cautionary in tone is after the Japanese military captures Louis and he is sent to a prison camp.
What I got out of the book also changed. Instead of merely learning some lessons about “overcoming adversity” — of surviving a plane wreck and living in a life raft — when Louis and his friend Phil are sent to a prison camp the meaning of the book suddenly began to parallel the lives of so many people who are bullied and harassed at work.
No, really. I know some who read this article will think I’m going way over the top when I say that a WWII prison camp is an appropriate comparison for what it feels like to live in a hostile work environment. And, I do realize most employees don’t face death and beatings in the modern workplace.
But hear me out on why I think the prison camp actually is a good analogy for a truly hostile work environment; there are many parallels to how it FEELS.
- The inability to make sense of what is happening to you
- The confusion over why this being allowed to happen
- Why are good people standing by and not doing something to stop this?
- The mental anguish that continues even after the tormentor is gone for the day — the way the few minutes of actual interaction with the tormentor occupy the employee/prisoner’s mind for hour after anguishing hour, taking away sleep, the ability to interact with others, or even think about anything other than worry and fear over the NEXT interaction with the tormentor.
Here is the passage, describing how Louis and Phil maintained feelings of hope when they were trying to survive in their life raft after their plane (the Green Hornet) crashed. But, how difficult it became to maintain hope when instead of fighting nature, they became prisoners of war and had to fight off the humiliation their captors subjected them to.
This is the text that caused me to believe that prison camps are an instructive analogy for what it feels like to live through a hostile work environment:
The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter. But on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live. One American airman, shot down and relentlessly debased by his Japanese captors, described the state of mind that his captivity created: “I was literally becoming a lesser human being.”
In both situations the total organization is not completely evil. Even in the prison camps that Louis lived through there were guards who were humane, who showed compassion, and who tried to make life a little better for the prisoners.
There were also laws, from the Geneva convention, that were supposed to protect prisoners of war so that prisoners were treated humanely. In addition to the Geneva convention, the Japanese military had its own rules about the ethical treatment of prisoners, and set limits on what guards and prison officials could and could not do.
Just like business organizations, where most people are basically good, a few dark souls worked their way into positions of authority at the prison camps where Louis was held. While a prisoner of war Louis was abused by a prison official who oversaw a single camp who was known as “the Bird.” Bird wasn’t the head of all the prison camps, he was only in charge of one location at a time. There were good people in the Japanese Military above Bird, and there were good people below him. Despite the presence of ethical people around him, Bird was allowed to single out, abuse, beat and psychologically torment Louis.
Bird physically and mentally tortured Louis for no apparent reason. And for no apparent reason the ethical people around Bird did not step up and stop him from trying to destroy Louis. The international laws of the Geneva convention did not stop Bird from beating Louis. The Japanese Military’s own rules about ethical treatment of prisoners did not stop Bird from threatening Louis with death one day, then acting like he never made the threat the next day.
- Why did the laws fail Louis?
- Why did the internal rules of the Japanese military fail Louis?
- Why did the humane people above Bird and below Bird in the prison camp system fail to stop Bird from beating and mentally torturing Louis?
- And what was it about Bird himself that lead him to behave so cruelly?
All of these questions parallel the questions that abused employees ask themselves.
- Why are employment laws ignored?
- How come company policies are not followed?
- Why do executives turn a blind eye to abusive managers, and how come co-workers won’t stand up against a bully (is it for fear that they will become the bully’s next target)?
The similarities continue. Prison camp survivors continue suffering mental anguish even after the confinement ends. Louis struggled with nightmares about Bird. Even when safely back in the U.S., Louis either could not sleep, or his sleep was stolen by dreams of Bird torturing him both physically and psychologically. To help him avoid these painful memories and dreams, Louis began drinking every night. His marriage suffered. His body suffered. After surviving years of living in a military prison camp, the mere memories of abuse (rather than the abuse itself) nearly destroyed him.
Since the title of the book is “Unbroken”, you’ve probably figured out that the prison camps and memories of abuse by his tormentor do not ultimately destroy Louis. The book is inspiring, as I had hoped, but it is also more than that.
Unbroken provides keen insights into how it feels to be singled out for cruel and meaningless abuse by another human being. The book struggles to make sense out of how a few dark souls can bring themselves to intentionally cause another human being to suffer. Though there really is no good explanation as to why one human acts so cruelly toward another, the message of the book is one of hope.
Somewhere deep inside every victim there is the capacity to cling to your essential human dignity, and not allow your tormentor to reach your soul. In each of us, deep inside, there is the strength to remain unbroken.
P.S. Click on the book cover to go to Amazon and read more about the amazing story “Unbroken”. Please know that if you use this link to Amazon, like any link to Amazon from this site, and you decide to buy the book, I will receive a small commission. It helps pay for hosting, which I appreciate, but you are free to go to Amazon my typing the URL into your navigation bar or purchasing the book at you local bookstore. Either way, “Unbroken” is a great read you won’t be able to put down. -Curt