So Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton from 1965 to 1973. During that time he was tortured over twenty times. As the senior officer he established systems to help the other prisoners survive their captivity, including a system for dealing with torture and for communicating through coded taps. When Collins, the author of Good To Great, asked the Admiral how he survived such horrible conditions with no certainty of ever being released, with no certainty as to “the end of the story.” Stockdale replied,
“ 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.”
Stockdale survived because he had faith that he would eventually get out. But the next question Collins asked is the one that gave rise to this post.
“ ‘Who didn’t make it out?’ ‘ Oh, that’s easy,’ he said, ‘The optimists.’ ”
This answer confused Collins and it confused me too. On the one hand he says it was his faith in the certainty of his survival which resulted in his survival, on the other he says the ones who didn’t survive were the optimists. At first the statements seemed contradictory. Stockdale explained,
“ ‘ 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.’ … ‘This is a very important lesson. 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.’”
Faith, real faith, is not moved by the circumstances good or bad. Faith rests on something greater than the circumstances, God's will. If we allow ourselves to be moved by even good news rather than staying fixed on the promise of God we could well end up like the optimistic prisoners of war who died of a broken heart.
Romans 4:19-21 “19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: 20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; 21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.”