Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking military officer in the Hanoi Hilton. He was there for, I think, seven years, from 1968 to 1974. He was tortured over twenty times. And by his own account, Stockdale came out of the prison camp even stronger than he went in.
In preparation for a day I got to spend with Jim Stockdale, I read his book In Love and War. As I read this book, I found myself getting depressed because it seemed like his systemic constraints were so severe, and there was never going to be any end to it. His captors could come in any day and torture him. He had no sense of whether, or if, he would ever get out of the prison camp. Absolutely depressing situation. It’s like we can all survive anything as long as we know it will come to an end, we know when, and we have a sense of control. He had none of that.
Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, “Wait a minute, I’m getting depressed reading this book, and I know the end of the story. I know he gets out. I know he reunites with his family. I know he becomes a national hero. And I even know that we’re going to have lunch on the beautiful Stanford campus on Monday. How did he not let those oppressive circumstances beat him down? How did he not get depressed?” And I asked him.
He said, “Well, you have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—get out of this—but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person. Not only that, Jim, you realize I’m the lucky one.”
I said, “No, I don’t.”
He said, “Yes, because I know the answer to how I would do, and you never will.”
A little later in the conversation, after I’d absorbed that and said nothing for about five minutes because I was just stunned, I asked him who didn’t make it out of those systemic circumstances as well as he had.
He said, “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists.”
And I said, “I’m really confused, Admiral Stockdale.”
He said, “The optimists. Yes. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.” Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and he said, “This is what I learned from those years in the prison camp, where all those constraints just were oppressive. You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”
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