In February of 1973, a U.S. Air Force C-141A transport plane took off from Hanoi, Vietnam, headed toward the Philippines. As the wheels pulled off the ground, 40 jubilant men screamed with joy and relief.
They were the first planeload of nearly 600 American prisoners of war being released from North Vietnamese prisons, where they had been tortured and abused for much of the previous decade.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be one of those released prisoners, but it’s even harder to imagine how these men stayed sane — most for years — while they waited for the end. And since they were tortured and abused, they never knew whether they would survive to return home or if they would be killed instead.
I’ve been thinking today about those men because they offer some clues about how different people handle extreme stress. As I keep hearing people talk about how much stress everybody is under right now — with many locked at home in quarantine with their families — I’ve found myself thinking about ex-POW Jim Stockdale.
He said one thing separated those who thrived in captivity from those who were destroyed. It offers an important clue for us today.
When writer Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale years later for his business book, “Good to Great,” he asked Stockdale how he endured the years of uncertainty without falling into depression and despair.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said, as recounted by Collins in the book. “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.”
After Stockdale told him this, Collins said they walked together in silence for a couple of minutes and then he asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Stockdale said. “The optimists.”
Collins was now confused. Didn’t Stockdale just tell him that his optimism and faith had let him survive. So he asked Stockdale to explain.
“The optimists,” Stockdale repeated. “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.”
Collins reports that Stockdale paused and then continued.
“This is a very important lesson,” he said. “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.”
When I recalled that passage today — and then when I found it to re-read — I suddenly understood why I’ve been paying attention to how people are reacting to the crisis we’re going through right now.
Some people are enduring the stress, but they’re in deep denial about what’s going on and what things need to change in their lives. They’re the ones who don’t want to change. They’re the ones who want to put their brains into neutral and just believe that everything will go back to the way it was.
Those are the people who are going to have trouble in the years to come.
There are other people who are looking reality squarely in the face. They’re the ones who are soberly assessing the changes they’re going to have to make in order to survive and then thrive. They’re the ones who see just how ugly things can get and they’re trying to start making plans. They’re preparing themselves mentally for life completely changing.
As we face the future, we need to have unwavering faith in our ability to improvise and in our ability to face whatever challenges are thrown our way, but if we put our faith in fairy tales — the notion that life as we knew it will return with no substantial changes — we will be setting ourselves up to be destroyed.
You didn’t create the environment into which we’ve entered. You didn’t trigger the events which seem to be leading toward a financial apocalypse. But you are the only one who can decide what your reaction to these events will be.
Most people will wait for politicians to tell them what to do and how the future will be “fixed.” These people will believe lies and fantasies. They will have their hopes crushed. They will wait too long to realize that nobody is coming to rescue them.
A few people will realize that their mindset and their decisions will determine their futures. These will be the people who stop being passive consumers and quickly become planners and builders instead.
Jim Stockdale was the senior U.S. military officer in North Vietnamese captivity. He had been a U.S. Navy commander — leading a squadron of planes from an aircraft carrier — when he had been shot down. After he returned to the military, he became a three-star admiral and retired as a national hero. He and his wife wrote a book detailing their experiences apart — alternating chapters to tell their different points of view.
Stockdale and those like him were not destroyed by their POW experience, but there are hundreds of men who never returned and who remain unaccounted for. Although the Vietnamese admit to only 55 Americans dying in captivity, so many others remained unaccounted for that it seemed likely others were killed by their experience.
You and I will probably never be tortured in a prison, but we do face a probable future that is very stressful and different from all that we’ve planned for.
You and I can survive this experience and come out better for it, but only if we’re willing to face the hard, cold, ugly reality — and deal with it instead of trusting in childish hopes and fantasies.
Nobody is coming to rescue us. We must rescue ourselves.