The burning match
Imagine that I handed you an unlit match and asked you to hold it firmly between your forefinger and thumb. Now imagine that I lit the match and asked you to keep it in this position for as long as you could. Suffice it to say that most of you would hold on until the very moment you felt a burning sensation in your fingers, at which time you would probably throw it to the ground.
Now I want you to think of the last time you were angry with someone. Perhaps it was your boss who failed to honor your vacation request, or maybe it was the person who cut you off on the freeway. While you may not be able to pinpoint exactly how long you held onto your anger, I’m guessing you have had moments when you chose to keep the match in your hand (anger) despite the fact that it was burning you. In other words, you continued to manifest feelings of anger long after the circumstance had passed. While anger is a natural human emotion, the suffering that occurs as a result of holding on to the anger can extremely costly.
So, how can we learn to let go of the burning match? Below is an incredibly moving story of a man whose life serves as a beautiful illustration of the power of letting go.
At the age 19, Louis Zamperini ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Olympics, falling just short of a medal. Determined to represent the United States once again in the 1940 Olympics, Zamperini’s dream was cut short with the outbreak of World War II. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. In May of 1943, he and his crew embarked on a search mission for a fallen pilot. Unfortunately, his plane crashed into the wide open Pacific Ocean.
What followed was a 47 day struggle for survival. With only a meager raft, Zamperini and his crew spent days without drinking water and were exposed to extremely hot weather conditions. Sharks would often circle beneath their raft.
Zamperini drifted for almost 2,000 miles before he washed ashore on a Pacific Island. From there, he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. As a prisoner, Zamperini was fed poorly and was often abused by countless prison guards. Perhaps his most notable tormentor was a Japanese sergeant, nicknamed “The Bird”, whose beatings were so fierce that Zamperini often wondered if the next one would lead to his death.
Against all odds, Zamperini survived and was liberated at the end of the war. Clearly overcome with intense anger toward his tormentors, especially “The Bird”, he wrestled with countless moments of rage and depression. He resorted to alcohol as his emotional escape, but nothing could erase the terrifying memories of his experience as a prisoner.
Several years after his return, Zamperini attended a Billy Graham sermon, a moment that would shape the rest of his life. He embraced Christianity and his spiritual walk helped him to uncover the tremendous power of forgiveness. Shortly after hearing the sermon, he began writing letters of forgiveness to the very people that almost took his life.
In 1950, Zamperini returned to Tokyo and requested a visit to a Tokyo prison where several of his tormenters were serving sentences for war crimes. He even planned on forgiving “The Bird”, though he refused to meet with Zamperini.
The anger that once consumed him was now gone. Why? Because he was willing to let go of the match. He realized that by holding on to the anger he was creating more and more turmoil in his own life. He learned to acknowledge the fact that anger itself wasn’t going to change the people who inflicted all of this pain. You see, by choosing to forgive his tormentors, those who tried to take all of his physical and mental power from him, he was taking back the steering wheel of his own life. No longer would he allow a circumstance to govern his emotions. Not surprisingly, he dedicated the rest of his life to spreading the message of forgiveness.
Sadly, Louis Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97. Below is a segment from his appearance on CBS Sunday Morning, which will give you a glimpse into the life of this amazing man.