Have you been through times when you felt hopeless and helpless? When you encountered great difficulty, particularly during a crisis? When you didn’t know exactly when and how it will end, and how the world and your life would look like when it finally did?
If yes, then here’s a true life story that will help you cope with the hard times, and inspire and strengthen you to push through.
In 1965, James Stockdale’s A-4E Skyhawk was shot down in Vietnam and he was taken prisoner there. He spent more than seven years in the Vietnamese prison being tortured and subjected to unimaginable circumstances. The good thing was that Stockdale had spent years studying Stoic philosophy before deploying, and he used those teachings to fuel himself and endure his brutal captivity.
While some of his fellow inmates developed baseless over-the-top optimism and harbored empty hopes of an early release coinciding with a special occasion such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, Stockdale, grounded by his practice of philosophy, simply faced the dark and grim reality of his situation without letting despair, fear, loneliness and depression get the better of him.
Stockdale, who drew strength from the essential tenets of Stoicism, knew he had no control over the fact that his aircraft was shot down, or that he was taken as a prisoner of war. But what he told himself and what helped me go through this ruthless ordeal was the sense of belief within him that he could ultimately use this experience as an event that changed himself and his life for better. As Stockdale later expressed this notion in his own words, “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.”
This kind of surrender, this kind of love for our fate, for what we go through no matter how difficult an ordeal it is, is what helps us restore our personal power. Yes, there are countless things that are beyond our control, but we still have the power to choose how we respond to an event. We still have the power to decide how a particular experience will impact us. And we still have absolute control over how we choose the story to end.
This story teaches us that the notions of good and evil only exist within our hearts and what gives them meaning is within our will and our power. To paraphrase the instruction that Epictetus — the philosopher that Stockdale looked up to — once gave to his students, there can be no such thing as being the ‘victim’ of something external, whether it be an event or another person. You can only be a ‘victim of yourself.’ It’s all in how you discipline your mind.