The Vanity Of Optimism, And The Power Of Faith

In my research recently, I came across these quotes from the Wikipedia article on Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale, if you recall, spent more than seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Author James Collins asked Stockdale how he survived for so long, and he answered:

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.

However, later on Collins asked about those who didn’t make it–those who died in captivity. Stockdale replied,

Oh, that’s easy, 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 creates a seeming paradox, as most people think that optimism and faith are identical. To this, Stockdale replied,

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.

Optimism, positive thinking, and the kind of name-it-claim magical thinking now so prevalent in churches cannot be in any way thought of as true faith, as they teach us to place our hope in people, things, and events, all of which are too frail and transitory to constitute true support. In short, these false pretenders of faith teach us to trust in the objects of our desire, rather than the giver of all good things.

True faith, on the other hand, is a belief that God will keep us until that day, and ultimately deliver us from all evil, despite our current circumstances and travail. Such true faith does not in any way negate our circumstances, wish them away, or pretend that they do not exist. Rather, it sustains us in those circumstances, and helps us to overcome them.

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