Some things you just have to risk believing in. All the more so at perilous times such as these. You have to risk certain beliefs for the sake of the sanity and the security of your soul. One essential belief is that, no matter what you are going through, no matter what you are dealing with, you shall prevail in the end.
That is what an African-American preacher told a mesmerized audience in Chicago at a national conference on preaching some time ago. Reverend Frank Thomas, a most dynamic Baptist preacher from Memphis, got that quote from Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking U.S. military officer in the Hanoi prison during the Viet Nam war.
Stockdale was imprisoned for eight years, during which he was tortured many times. He lived without prisoner’s rights, and with no assurance that he would ever be released, ever see his family again. Yet he fought a quiet internal war against his captors and their attempts to use him for propaganda. Once he went so far as to beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor in order to avoid being put on television as an example of a well-treated prisoner.
Even though he knew that discovery would mean torture and possible death, Stockdale exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters. He and his wife developed a secret language and in his letters to her he would pass along whatever secret information he was able to attain. Then his wife would bring the decoded information to the proper authorities.
After his release, Stockdale was given the highest military and civilian honors. When interviewed, he was asked how he made it through his lengthy ordeal. He said, “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, that in retrospect I would not trade.”
Then the interviewer asked him about who did not make it out of the prison. Stockdale said, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists, they never got out. The ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out of here by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and go, then they would say, ‘We’ll be out of here by Easter.’ Then Easter would come and go, and they’d say, ‘We’ll be out of here by Thanksgiving.’ And Thanksgiving would come and go. And then it would be Christmas all over again. And they would remember their starting pledge to get out – and they would die of a broken heart.”
In succinct conclusion, Stockdale said, “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 need for the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
Extraordinary wisdom, this. Hard won insight, chiseled truth. To Stockdale’s words I would add but one modification: genuine optimists don’t put overcoming trials and tribulations on a timetable; only fools do that. Genuine optimists are those who, like Stockdale, believe that no matter what they face, in the end they will prevail. That conviction, though mostly unvoiced, has gotten me through some tough times.
And that is precisely what our attitude must be as persons and as a people in our current ordeal. We shall prevail.