Hope that sustains life

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest ranking U.S. military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, he lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.  As the ranking officer, he did everything he could to create conditions that would help the other prisoners survive. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture. He created an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well treated prisoner.”  After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both Aviator Wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor. His book, In Love and War, written jointly with his wife upon his return is a depressing story of his fate as a prisoner of war. His future seemed so bleak. The only certainty was the constant brutality of his captors.  In an interview Stockdale was asked the question: How did he survive, and what is the possible lesson for those of us not facing the dramatic circumstance of pending torture and death?  His response was, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” When asked, Who didn’t make it? Stockdale said, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. The optimists were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they would say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”  Admiral Stockdale stated, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”  You can hear Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We are not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”  What separates people is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox, is that we must retain the hope that we will prevail in the end and we must confront the most brutal facts of our current reality.  

Retain the hope that we will prevail in the end AND confront the brutal facts of our current reality.  Turn that horrible crossroads into a defining moment in your life.  The solution to your current problem doesn’t lie with talk show advice on MTV2, not answering that phone call from the credit card company, or in casino economics ( stop buying those lottery tickets).  

The true solution to your problem lies in holding onto hope, confronting the harsh realities of your life, and using virtue to light the way to a better day.