Emotional Strength in Uncertain Times

Illegitimi non carborundum.

Posted Feb 21, 2017

Admiral James Stockdale, perhaps best remembered as Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate in 1992, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  He survived years of captivity by holding firm to his conviction that the war would end someday, that he would eventually be released, and that the experience would make him a better man. 

Stockdale’s mindset may sound like optimism, but the admiral disagrees.  Some of his fellow prisoners of war were optimists – and they were the ones who fared poorly in captivity.  The optimists held out hope that they would be released by Easter, then by the Fourth of July, then by Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and so on.  They set themselves up for a relentless cycle of highs and lows that soon undermined their ability to hold any firm conviction about their future release.  They descended into despair.

Stockdale’s mindset – now known as the Stockdale paradox – is summarized in this quote:  “You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time you must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

That’s stoicism, not optimism.  Stoicism predates Christianity.  Its core tenet is that one should cultivate a dispassionate, reasoned response to life’s ups and downs.  Like any moral or ethical teaching, it can be taken to extremes (e.g., numbing oneself to joy or sadness) or it can be applied in a manner that makes sense and is useful.  Stockdale used it as his circumstances dictated and to the extent that it helped him cope. 

We Americans now live in an era of malignant ignorance and weaponized incompetence in high places.  Short of storming the gates en masse and forcing a change in government, we must endure the status quo.  That doesn’t mean we should give up in despair or disengage from society.  Activism is fine, but until and unless it brings about beneficial change, we must still cope with the current reality.

Stoicism is eloquently expressed in the following poem, which is embedded within Tennessee Williams’ play, The Night of the Iguana:

How calmly does the orange branch / Observe the sky begin to blanch / Without a cry, without a prayer / With no betrayal of despair.

The orange tree – “whose native green must arch above the earth’s obscene, corrupting love” – eventually begins to age and then to die.  The poem concludes:

O courage, could you not as well / Select a second place to dwell? / Not only in that golden tree / But in the frightened heart of me.

Being stoic does not mean we become numb.  It doesn’t mean we aren’t angry, afraid, or disappointed.  It simply means that we face the situation with courage and that we refuse to let those negative emotions control our lives.  In short, stoicism is defiance in response to our own negative emotions:  “You will not bring me down.  I am stronger than you.”  Similar views of stoicism are beautifully expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, and William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus

Stoicism, combined with activities that make you feel useful and productive, provide a good foundation for emotional strength in good times and bad.