Being a Realistic Optimist and Using Faith to Survive Tough Times
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
During the Vietnam War, Jim Stockdale was flying his navy jet over North Vietnam. Below him, he saw a missile rising up on the course to hit his jet. Despite his efforts, the missile violently hit his plane. He now could no longer steer the damaged jet and his only option was to bail out. When he hit the ground in a small village, he was quickly surrounded and severely beaten. Later to be taken to Hanoi and imprisoned in in the Hoa Lo prison, which was also known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Upon arriving at the prison, he discovered he was the highest-ranking officer. As such, he was in charge of protecting and guiding the other prisoners. This also meant he would be a target for his jailkeepers, who subjected him to extraordinarily difficult beatings.
He remained in the prison for eight and a half years, from 1965 to 1973. During this time his legs were broken twice, he was constantly undernourished and suffered sleep deprivation. Some of his time was spent in isolation. None of his days were easy.
Meanwhile, back home, his wife, Sybil, organized a group of other wives to form The League of American families of POW’s and MIA’s. She spent her time fighting for knowledge of their status; speaking to congress and even spoke at the Paris Peace Conference. For eight and a half years she never gave up.
On February 12th, 1973, Rear Admiral James Stockdale was released as part of Operation Freedom, along with 591 other prisoners. When he arrived on the tarmac, he could barely walk and his eyes were sunken into his head. But at least he was home. He later received the Medal of Honor.
He retired from the Navy in 1979. In his post-retirement life, he was Ross Perot’s selection to be vice president during his unsuccessful presidential run in 1992. He was also an author and president of the Citadel.
After he returned, a questioned he answered a number of times; was how did he manage to survive?He answer was always; 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.
Another question he had to answer frequently was; who didn’t survive. His answer; Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d 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.
For Stockdale this was an important point; which he explained as follows; 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.