Sunday, January 23, 2011

Unbroken - A Message and a Model

Parkinson's disease has been labeled as merciless suffering that requires courage, stamina and a will to fight against the odds. For some it requires enduring shaking and thrashing about that prevents writing, walking, speaking or even eating. Others experience stiffness to the point of total immobilization akin to a statute. Sometimes, add to that dark depression, anxiety, mind numbing insomnia, and a panoply of other painful, embarrassing and debilitating symptoms and you have a recipe for the demise of dignity; a potential victim in the making. PD can corrode the soul. Its power and presence are unrelenting and unforgiving. The battle against this cruel villain demands more from us each day, draining our reserves and bullying us beyond our willingness to fight back.

Many people with Parkinson's give up. Depleted and discouraged they are drained of hope and happiness. Smiles have disappeared behind a mask that imprisons laughter and any joy of living. Suicide, no longer just whispered in desperation, is promoted by some as the final answer. It is touted as the dignified exit strategy when the daily quashing of life's “quality” has irreparably defeated one’s will to live.
Facing the daunting prognosis of this soul-destroying disease, how can we fight on, defending our personhood and purpose while holding high the human spirit, unbroken?

Imagine you are a 19-year-old elite athlete near the pinnacle of human performance, a world-renowned Olympian with a future of great potential. And then,your meteoric rise to recognition literally crashes into the sea, leaving you adrift on the Pacific Ocean. You have no food, water for a few days and a fast fading hope of ever being found alive. Add sharks encircling your small rubber raft, unbearable heat beating your body, and no way to avoid the sun that scorches your salt-soaked skin until you are a mass of oozing boils and blisters. Friends and family give up searching and you are proclaimed dead. But miraculously you survive. After 47 days at sea drifting over 2000 miles you are found, delirious, near dead and half your former weight. However, your saviours are the enemy, feared for their inhuman treatment of those who fall into their hands. You are thrown into prison where every day for more than two years you are subjected to unthinkable cruelty, deprivation, torture, starvation, backbreaking labour and, perhaps worst of all, heart-crushing humiliation.

This is the true story of Louis Zamperini who, still alive at the age of 94, gives those of us who may be enduring difficulties a message and a model. Louis' life is chronicled in the best-selling book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” (by author Lauren Hillenbrand, who suffers from debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome). The book’s frank message is that we are each in need of dignity, which springs from hope, determination and a will to persevere. With it we can prevail over the most painful and persistent difficulties. My favourite quote from this unforgettable read is:

“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. … Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”

I believe that this remarkable book has forever strengthened my refusal to surrender to my seemingly indomitable captor, Parkinson’s disease. If, through his unimaginable suffering, Louis Zamperini’s spirit could remain unbroken, his dignity and identity in tact, then we can all strive to emulate him and cling to our own sense of purpose as we battle with the enemy, PD.


  1. Bob
    How timely that this should be your blog today. My husband just did a sermon yesterday on what it means to be unbroken, using both the apostle Peter, broken with his betrayal, and this book about Louis. The book has made a deep impact on him too.
    Claire Taylor

  2. Timely for me also. I just posted on my new blog the 9 reasons why 2010, the first year I lived with a PD diagnosis, was the best of my 81 years. In 2009, when undiagnosed and concerned about symptoms I didn't understand, I made plans to sell my house, sell my car, and move into a senior residence. AND I bought the book Final Exit. Today I have my house and my car. I'm not sure where the Final Exit book is. For more, see
    -- John

  3. Wow, this sounds like an incredible journey! It's always remarkable to find those who take adversity and ride on it's back as though it were Falcore. Jocelyn and I were just talking the other day about how it is when you get down on yourself for one reason or another, and then seeing or hearing an uplifting story like this, where someone has taken the lemon life handed them and made some sweet, home-squeezed lemonade. I will grab this book when I have the chance and will follow this blog for continued PD updates. Thanks for sharing your struggle.

  4. As a 57 year old man with a new diagnosis of PD, I find your blog germane and supportive. You write very well, Mr. Kuhn, and I appreciate your positive yet tough-minded point of view.

    I will be reading your comments with interest and appreciation.

  5. i admire your strength and encouragement.. i'm 25 and a college student. currently writing a piece on Parkinson's disease and technologies that can be designed for assisted living. Please ok, we can communicate via mail..