Admiral Jim Stockdale is a man who understood the pain and trauma of physical torture. Admiral Stockdale was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp in the Vietnam War. During his eight years of confinement (1965 to 1973), he was tortured over 20 times.
In James C. Collins’ book, Good To Great, Collins shares an interview with Stockdale regarding his coping strategies while a prisoner of war:
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.
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale gave this surprising answer:
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.
Collins brought these seemingly conflicting concepts together in what he called the “Stockdale Paradox”:
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. (Collins, p. 83)
Some of the most destructive mistakes in our society come from crazed optimists. These dangerous optimists, in my view, are people who lack the imagination to adequately assess unseen but sometimes predictable danger, or who can’t accept that dramatic and disastrous change can strike. Examples include couples who optimistically violate God’s moral codes and face disease or unwanted pregnancy, the mangled cars and bodies from drivers who thought they could drive safely at crazy speeds, the addicts who thought they would try drugs just once, and the nation whose currency will be debauched and whose rising generation will inherit bankruptcy, poverty, or the captivity of crushing debt because of our inability to curb a delicious spending spree.
The most dangerous optimists of all can’t grasp the threat of genuine evil. They can’t imagine that there are power-hungry maniacs who would do anything for their own benefit, and whose aims go beyond mere wealth to a devilish quest for power and control of other people’s lives. So many people I talk to seem unable to grasp such threats–in spite of recent world history in which millions would die and millions would be impoverished because the various “agrarian reformers” or “representatives of the people” that they trusted turned out to be evil beyond anything they could imagine. What such men have done and how they did it needs to be studied. It was the study of the abuses of power and an awareness of the many unseen but often predictable threats to liberty that drove our Founding Fathers to give us a government that was deliberately crippled to keep it small and forever checked and limited to block the evil ambitions of some mortal men and leave God-given liberty and personal responsibility for our lives in our own hands.
One highly respected local LDS leader I spoke with many years ago expressed dismay when I discussed some troubling political matters that smacked of treason and betrayal of our freedoms by elected officials. He said that we should trust our leaders and preferred to assume that they are always acting in good faith. He quoted a famous LDS businessman who once said something like, “Don’t tell me what’s wrong with America. I want to hear what’s right with America.!” That feels nice, but don’t rely on that thinking when it comes to preserving your freedom, or your health: “Doc, don’t tell me what’s wrong with my body. I only want to hear what’s right with my body!”
I’m reading a terrific book from an atheist and socialist who has some very wise insights into the decay of modern religion and the foolish optimism of modern society. I won’t agree with her on some fundamental points, of course, but I love her writing and wit and really enjoy this book. The book is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. She warns against the dangerous lack of imagination we face under the deadening influence of positive thinking, leading people to spend foolishly and go hopelessly in debt, leading banks to create ridiculously insecure derivatives and other schemes that could only work under optimistic conditions (or with sufficient government bailouts), leading businesses to afflict their people with empty motivational speakers and mystical New Age retreats, leading some Christian churches to replace the God of the Bible with a magical personal assistant whose purpose is to help you get rich, and leading a whole irrationally exuberant nation to create and be punished by bubbles and Madoff-like schemes.
The Book of Mormon, in my opinion, does much to cure us of the foolish optimism that afflicts this nation and keeps people trapped in behaviors and mindsets that will make them victims to their own passions and make them gullible targets to be exploited, impoverished, and even made captive by others. The Book of Mormon warns us that destruction can come to entire cities or nations. The Book of Mormon warns us to prepare carefully for times of famine, war, and trouble. The Book of Mormon warns us of the constant dangers to liberty that we must watch for. It warns us that government is a lure for the worst, most dangerous criminals of all time, men who must not be trusted when they seek to grab more power, and warns that there must be restrains on the power and trust we can give to any one man. The Book of Mormon warns us that there are men like Amalickiah and entire groups of elite, well-connected people like the Kingmen of Captain Moroni’s day who will gladly tear down the liberty of a free people to gain power and glory and to transfer vast power to prospective tyrants.
Most pessimistically of all, and most difficult of all to accept or even to discuss seriously when one is drenched in the delusion of mortal optimism, is a concept that the Book of Mormon teaches and emphasizes repeatedly, a topic that we rarely hear in Sunday School or church meetings of any kind, so troubling and worrisome is this loathed mass of pessimism coming from this sacred book written for our time, compiled and edited by those great and final Pessimists, Mormon and Moroni, who watched their nation self-destruct and who prophetically saw our time and knew what could befall us as well if failed to heed their warnings. That concept is one that the Book of Mormon warns will pervade our time and threaten our liberty and the liberty of the planet (“all nations”). I refer to the loathsome topic of “secret combinations”–networks of conspiring men, often rich and influential, including those of noble birth, merchants, lawyers, judges, and politicians, as well as gangs of criminals and guerrilla warriors. Operating in secret to gain power and influence, they work from within but also are willing to work with and exploit the enemy and do whatever it takes to gain power. Lives and liberty itself will be sacrificed for their quest for power.
Many Latter-day Saints seem to assume that all these dire warnings are about the pathetic and weak Mafia, which does not seem to have done very well in terms of overthrowing the liberty of any nations recently, though Sicily and a few US cities have their share of trouble, to be sure.
I think we need to be willing to begin to draw upon the power and wisdom that comes from the Book of Mormon’s informed pessimism about the dangers of mortal life, while also having the long-range optimism that recognizes we will ultimately prevail through the Atonement of Christ. But until that glorious day of deliverance comes, we are here in mortality where we must face the most brutal facts of our current reality. We must understand where this nation has been headed for several decades now, what the threats to liberty are, why endless deficit spending gives power to some while impoverishing the many, and what on earth the Book of Mormon is trying to tell us. Secret combinations, whatever they are, have the disadvantage of being secret, at least when they are most active and successful. But their goals can surely be understood from Book of Mormon teachings, and those ends can be resisted by, for example, keeping the inspired check and balances of the US Constitution in force and keeping the powers of government small and constantly constrained. (And if someone comes out and says that they are part of what appears to be a secret combination or supports one, perhaps we should not trust them with too much power.) We owe our liberty to Founding Fathers who were pessimists when it came to trusting humans with power.
I feel that it is time we begin to take this volume of scripture more seriously, and not flee in fear or close or minds when it does not resonate with the mindless optimism that can be so comforting.