Being a Realistic Optimist and Using Faith to Survive Tough Times

, , , ,
vietnam war

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew [6:34]

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 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.

That is how he survived eight and a half years of daily torture, watching other men die, isolation, and broken legs. He never got too far out in front of himself, he dealt with the immediate task at hand. Never giving up hope or faith he would ultimately survive.

When I read this story, it immediately took me to Matthew [6:34], where Jesus says; Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. As I reflected on my own life, I completely understood his message. The times I excelled, I stayed focus on the moment. My times of failure where when I completed tasks just to get them done or worried about how long things would take.

Last summer, while hiking the Appalachian trail, I got similar advice climbing very steep mountains. An experienced hiker told me, don’t think about where you are going; think about the next step in front of you. After a while, you will be at the top. And it was true when I focused on what my next step was, I started to notice I always got to the top far easier than I thought and along the way was able to take the time to see the beauty that surrounded me.

This is the point Jesus is making about not worrying about tomorrow in Matthew [6:34]. Stay in the moment, stick to your task at hand. In this way, we become realistic optimists. We should never lose faith in our end goal, but we also shouldn’t skip what we have to do today.

Getting ahead of ourselves, or creating unrealistic expectations about the future, can get us in trouble. We can make bad decisions when we are just optimistic without putting in the effort of knowing the facts. Almost an abdication of what we are to do today. Leading us down a road that hasn’t been well thought through or really prayed about.

Hoping for a good outcome isn’t as productive or faithful as working towards and knowing there will be a good outcome. We can pray and ask for a good outcome, but we shouldn’t abdicate the effort required by us to produce a good outcome. False hope is dangerous. The hope connected with God and reality is how miracles happen.

This simple, but surprising message by a survivor of horrible circumstances; connected to the wise words of Jesus, is the blueprint for accomplishing difficult things.

We will never really know what is in our future, but we will always know what we are to do today. God will always be with us in tough times, our part in any miracle is to have faith and work God’s plan one step at a time.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman