The 1960’s are remembered for high profile assassinations, Beatles, love-ins, and Vietnam War protests. A lot is taught in school about the decade of the 60’s but never once did I learn anything about Admiral James Stockdale.
While young men here in the United States resisted military service, perhaps fled to Canada, Stockdale was imprisoned in North Vietnam. He spent eight years in captivity from 1965-1973 after being shot down and was the highest ranking officer to be held captive there. To put that in perspective, as it turns out eight years was just about 10% of the man’s life.
On September 9, 1965 he ejected from his disabled plane over North Vietnam, landed in a small village, was beaten and taken prisoner.
He relied on stoicism to keep himself grounded and to keep from being defeated. He was beaten with his shoulders dislocated, legs and back broken, and his will assaulted. Yet he never gave an inch. Consider this: as an admiral, he led prisoner resistance. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he resisted participating in prisoner exploitation by deliberately disfiguring himself; he did this with a razor to cut his scalp and when the Vietnamese tried to cover that wound with a hat, he literally beat himself in the face until it became so swollen as to be unrecognizable. He slit his own wrists, a near mortal wound, to demonstrate he would not capitulate. He was kept in solitary confinement in a small cell, lights on 24-hours a day, in leg shackles for the majority of those 8-years in captivity.
In Good to Great author Jim Collins talks about “the Stockdale Paradox.” Simply put, it boils down to this quote:
“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — James Stockdale.
Those who didn’t make it out were the “optimists.” The men who retained optimism with the groundless belief that they would be out by Christmas, were continually defeated and eventually lost faith that they would make it out. The idea was that in order to be able to be resilient and see what may lie beyond, one has to acknowledge the current situation objectively. He knew how dire his situation was, but he still had the faith to believe he was going to make it through. More to the point, he had to accept his situation as what he had to endure and what he was fighting through. This wasn’t a temporary situation that would resolve itself with time, it was a static feature that was only going to change with his action. And it wasn’t going to be overnight, there were no simple fixes.
He returned home, willed himself to health – presumably via the same force of will demonstrated in the paradox quote – and resumed his military career becoming a university President and scholar.
Whatever hard time you’re going through, I urge you to consider the lessons of James Stockdale. Honor, integrity, resilience.