A Cure for Deadly Optimism and a Key for Preserving Freedom: The Book of Mormon

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.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

35 thoughts on “A Cure for Deadly Optimism and a Key for Preserving Freedom: The Book of Mormon

  1. Thanks for the post, Jeff. You make many great points. Ehrenreich's book sounds interesting.

    Unfortunately, there's at least one example of dangerous optimism that seems to affect Mormons. Some of my Mormon friends and relatives have fallen victim to multilevel marketing schemes, which subsist on dangerous optimism.

    On a practical level, there isn't much we can do about secret combinations, since we don't know about them. The biggest threats to our society aren't all that secret, except perhaps to people who choose not to avail themselves of easily accessible information.

  2. I think of our term "empty promises," and consider there is also such a thing as empty optimism.

    As for having faith, we should have faith God will see us through whatever may befall us, but that doesn't mean He will necessarily remove the trial. We must be willing to submit, as the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 3:19) says, to whatever He may see fit to inflict upon us. Reading your post, it seems the prisoner of war was willing to do exactly that, not saying, God will have me out of here by Christmas, but rather, God will see me through this.

  3. I see your post didn't say whether Stockdale's faith was in God, or whether he just had faith, period, that he would get through.

    Faith one will get through is a good thing, period. But having that faith placed in God is better, much better, period.

  4. It's weird. If you ask the question "Who won that war, North Vietnam or South Vietnam?" the answer is obvious.

    But all my Vietnam Veteran friends say "We were winning when I left."

    Another example of how it's dangerous to to take the word of the US government at face value.

  5. I like being optimistic in life. Never did like being around sour attitude people because they always made me feel hopeless. No, I think if one is wise as a serpent they will do just fine.

    It's interesting how a person could interpret this post. One would be very upset that President Obama is stimulating the economy. Another would be very happy that he is bringing us out of the mess President Bush put us in. It's all in perspective.

  6. Bush was a socialist who trashed our economic future by doubling the debt and always expanding the size of government. He got us into a huge mess. Now Obama is giving us more of the same, only faster, doubling the debt yet again at a record level, expanding government and trashing constraints to government at every step.

    Stimulating the economy? Stimulating socialist dreams for power, perhaps, but the economy has only been hurt by what he has done.

  7. Jeff, were your last lines a veiled reference to Bush being an admitted member of the secret gang Skull and Bones, or is it a reference to many of Obama's people openly professing to be socialists, actual Commununists, Mao sympathizers, and the like? Communism inherently involves secret combinations to advance its cause, even when many of its practitioners are public.

  8. I think I am calling a spade a spade when I say the real threat to democracy is fear. Fear turns otherwise respectful, thoughtful people into a maniacal mob. Fear justifies the shutting down of freedoms, the demonization of those who disagree, and the compromising of principles that hail from Jesus Christ himself.
    So it is with a clear eyed hope that good will prevail in the end that I see this kind of fearmongering and decry it as deadly, ugly, unAmerican propaganda of the sort that started the holocaust. (After all the verheisen of Jewish society were a cabal.)

  9. ScamG, I think others could post a very different perspective than you. My point is that I choose to see the glass as half full because there is always hope. Drag my dead body through the streets, but I will still go to my maker in paradise.

  10. Doc, aren't you LDS? How do you reconcile that view with the "fear" that the Book of Mormon teaches toward evil men in power and the rabid fear of secret combinations taught by Mormon and Moroni?

    So we should not worry about enemies, about threats to liberty, about power-hungry men seizing power or Madoff-like criminals taking our property? If the Germans had been LESS trusting in big government and state socialism ("national socialism" is what they called it) and more fearful about maniacs taking power over them, it would have been spared great horror. It is big, oppressive government that is the source of genocide and terror, not citizens seeking to protect personal liberty for all.

  11. Great post Jeff. Hey Doc.. if Im reading your post right you're saying Jeff and many others are just creating fear with these kinds of arguments and this is unAmerican. Sorry if I misread it. It baffles me though, the whole fearmongering argument that I seem to be hearing a lot of. Since when was questioning our governments motives and actions fearmongering. Especially with the Book of Mormon insights to these days. Yes.. Hitler was a huge fearmonger.. and he became powerful because of it. But didnt all those fearmongers who opposed him end up sleeping on wood beds in a cozy somewhat crowded camp, or end up resting 6 feet under. Or all those Stalin haters that fearmongered as well.. got a free vacation to a gulag resort. Mao – 60 million fearmongers, taken care of. Thank goodness with all of our technology, history will no longer repeat itself, right? Again.. it so baffles me that raising concerns is unAmerican and equated to fearmongering. So the question Ive got is when is it appropriate to question ones government. And if there is an appropriate time, how does one go about doing it without being a fearmonger. Is having hope in the future mean sticking my head in the sand and saying “God, I believe in you.. make it all better”. Or do we actually have some responsibility here?

  12. Personally, I see the warnings of secret combinations in the Book of Mormon completely devoid of any advice on how to fight them other than through preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and preparing in self defense for the siege.

    I also see a clear symbolic representation of the fruits of the way of the adversary vs. the savior. Frankly, this is THE DIFFERENCE between faith and fear. I am saddened by how many think a vote of no confidence in others represents faith of anykind. Your mob mentality scares me, even more because I know you are all otherwise basically good people, but can be driven to the dark side because you are convinced anyone who disagrees with you is Satan.

  13. Jeff, I don't comment here as much as I should, but this one really made a deep impression.

    I've long tried to balance my inherent pessimism with President Hinckley's urgings to be more positive, and I think you've hit on exactly the way to do it: focus on the long-term victories, but don't deny or be silent about the many dark things in our world that threaten us now.

    You're right about something else that too often goes ignored among we Latter-day Saints: the Book of Mormon is massively pessimistic. I think Hugh Nibley once said something like, "For an individual willing to repent, the message of the Book of Mormon is positive; for everyone else, it's all just gloom and doom."

  14. Doc, seems like when conservatives or even alleged conservatives like Bush are in charge, fear and loathing is the only acceptable reaction by the left. Fear of Christian influence, fear of Christian takeover of government, fear of a "vast rightwing conspiracy," etc. And now that we're about to turn over vast new powers into the hands of those who raised red flags of fear before, we're supposed to believe that fear is the great evil and we should just trust those who are taking us far beyond the limits of the Constitution? Now fear is the real enemy?

    My memory of historical events isn't all that great sometimes, but as I recall, the reason the Twin Towers fell in New York City wasn't exactly due to excessive fear among the deluded masses of America. Seems like there was some kind of concerted, planned attack that was bred in some kind of secret society. We have learned a little about the Al Qaeda organization as a secret society. Now you are right in part about the problem of fear, as fear of terrorists is being used as an excuse to ramp up government more than ever to keep track of law abiding citizens, while spending us into oblivion with unnecessary wars on the other side of the planet. It is the permanent loss of liberty in the hands of power-hungry men that must be feared most. You know something is wrong with the whole war on terror scenario when through it all we have kept our borders largely wide open so any terrorist that wants to can stroll across the border with relatively low risk. Bizarre. So what's the purpose of this not-quite-real war on terror? Perhaps it's part of an agenda for power. Fair question to wonder about, IMO.

  15. As for the inability to do anything about secret combinations, the Book of Mormon gives us practical tools. They were able to be penetrated, identified, and stamped out. Individuals and agendas could be rooted out. Patterns of behavior were identified. And when we see these trends and activities, we are to take vigorous action. I suggest re-reading the Book of Mormon with this issue in mind.

    In our day, we have learned about the Mafia through careful investigations. We have members of communist conspiratorial movements defect and reveal plans and secret agendas (Yuri Bezmenov and Anatoli Golitsin, for example). Secret records of Skull and Bones were swiped at Yale. We've even had elitists in support of some of these organizations come out and admit that such cabals exist and are influential, but good in their opinions (C. Quigley in Tragedy and Hope, David Rockefeller in his 2002 Memoirs). We've had the benefit of the Venona Papers revealing that many people in the US State Dept. really were working with or for the Soviet government in McCarthy's day. There is a lot that can be learned.

    In terms of practical efforts, for future reference, if a political candidate or appointee comes out openly in favor of Marxism and says they look to Stalin or any other totalitarian as an example, I think we have a duty to learn the lesson of the Kingmen in the Book of Mormon and oppose them, because the king-like governments they impose tend to bring great calamity, no matter how many times the New York Times praises the revolution or tells us that the totalitarian wannabe is just an agrarian reformer and nothing to be afraid of.

    Likewise, if someone says their vision of the future is one of totalitarianism or of national socialism, I think we have a duty to say "No". Further, if someone tramples upon the inspired constraints of the US Constitution, even in the name of a good cause, I think we need to remove that person form office. Keeping government limited is the key to keeping totalitarian threats off our backs. There are intelligent madmen who want totalitarian power, which is why most nations in history and on our globe today struggle under oppressive governments that loot the people, debauch their nation's currency, and live in opulence while the people grow poor. Loss of liberty is not a paranoid threat that could never happen – it's what usually happens unless a free people remains vigilant. And yes, unless a free people remains a moral people able to discern good from evil, and with the courage to shun the lure of voting themselves wealth taken from someone else's labor. So yes, I also agree that we need to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and prepare on a very personal level. But that may not be enough to preserve national liberty.

  16. Jeff, you should also say this:
    "If someone asks us to turn over some or all of our national sovereignty to any individual or organization, including the United Nations, we should oppose that person." The United Nations is dominated by Marxists and is closely aligned with the goals of international socialism and the one-world government despots. Looking to it for "peace" is national suicide.

  17. Leftists have no trouble believing that oil companies and big companies in general are conspiring and defrauding the people, and that may be right. But why is it so hard to believe that such fraud can't occur among politicians and the mega-wealthy well-connected folks that gravitate toward positions of power in D.C. and Wall Street?

    Great place to learn more: Shadows of Power by James Perloff. Well documented. Ignore at your own peril. Anthony Sutton is the one who examined and reported on the once secret membership records of Skull and Bones, BTW.

  18. Anon, leftists don't have a problem with seeing fraud in other people. Silly of you to state otherwise. You must have your head wrapped around a warp idea that righties are more moral than the left. I thought morals was based on action, not words.

  19. So what are to say when Obama himself was mentored by Saul Alinsky, a Communist Party member who used community organizing as a way to manipulate people for radical revolutionary ends (see his Rules for Radicals)? He is associated with William Ayers, who was part of a "secret combination" of anti-US terrorists. He has chosen "czars" such as Van Jones who said he is a communist – no McCarthy allegations here, Van SAYS he is; Anita Dunn, who said Mao was one of her favorite political figures whom she looks to for guidance (see this article), Ron Bloom who approvingly quoted Mao; Carol Browner who has long been a member of Socialists International; John Holdren, science czar who called for radical big-government population control and also quoted Mao (see this article, and others dedicated to what the Council on Foreign Relations has called "an end run around national sovereignty" and the whole Marxist dream of a one-world government in which the US is torn down and made a subject of "global law" under the United Nations. These are dangerous, anti-Amerrican radicals, tied to various cabals as well as open organizations with agendas harmful to American liberty. Folks, food storage alone ain't gonna stop these radicals. Throw them out and speak out while you can. Congress can use checks and balances to restore Constitutional Law, if we get rid of the Statists and radicals who trample on it.

  20. Very silly. Obama is not tied in with the Communist Party. Maybe I could sell you a bridge?

    As funny as your comment can be, it is a little scarey that you actually believe it. Yikes! Wouldn't want to sit next to you at the Ward Dinner Party. What could we talk about?

  21. It is not wise to have fear. It is wise to be informed and prepared. If you trust everyone that doesn't make you smart. That makes you gullible and easily taken advantage of. @Mitch, do we just ignore the Presidents connections and stick our fingers in our ears?

  22. What connections? It's silly to say he is surrounded by anti-american people. I know where my fingers are. Do you?

  23. Thank you Jeff for your post and your comments. And Mitch I know where your fingers are too they are helping keep your body balanced to make sure your head doesn't pop out of the sand.

  24. Mafia, skull and bones, Soviet government: none of them is secret. Yes, they started out as secret cabals, but as an organization grows in power, it becomes leaky and can't maintain too much secrecy once a certain threshold of power is reached. The Book of Mormon warns against secret combinations, but to suggest that it contains practical advice for rooting them out seems a bit of an overstatement. That's like saying that it contains practical advice for building a ship or waging bronze age (or is it iron age?) warfare.

    By the way, would the Sons of Liberty (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sons_of_Liberty) qualify as a secret combination?

  25. Mitch, don't be silly. If you aren't informed about the people in power then it is you who have your head in the sand. This is not a fantasy world. You can't take everyone at face value. You can't be gullible. You have to do research. There is footage of the President's people saying very un-American things. Don't be so partisan. I'm not saying that the president is un american. I'm saying that he surrounds himself with people who are. William Ayers was acquainted with our leader in the past. That man is evil.

  26. Sorry to interrupt the conversation, but I think the solution is to not confuse wishful thinking with optimism. Keep your feet on the ground while looking up.

  27. thank you–

    good thoughts–

    *I* would rather seek the truth, even if I have some momentary fear when I find out what it is.

    Being optomistic without a foundation for the optomism seems kind of sad to me–

    faith without God–

    I suppose some can do it, but I need a Supreme Being in Whom to have faith–

    not just a grin on my face?

    Taking the leap of faith beyond the left/right paradigm and the Republicans/Democrats is a big leap for many people, but the rewards are great–

    get beyond parties and presidents and look for truth and freedom, I say.

    Onward and upward–

  28. I'm wondering not so much about which groups are secret combination, but what kind of conduct might be like that of secret combinations.

    Such combinations in the Book of Mormon were created "to get power and gain" (Ether 8:22) and they were made up of "friends and kindreds." (3 Nephi 7:6)

    So, I would imagine those with the same spirit as those in secret combinations might remind each other to be loyal to each other as they seek to improve their lots in life. How worthy of merit their buddy might be is not the question, but rather whether the buddy is part of their group.

    And, we learn the members "would protect and preserve one another in whatsoever difficult circumstance that they should be placed." (Helaman 6:21)

    That verse, too, suggests an "I've- got-your-backside" attitude without regard to whether their buddy's backside deserves being protected.

    Friendship comes before merit.

    And, it means supporting the other person while they do harm to others. Helaman 6:21 goes on to say they supported each other "that they should not suffer for their murders, and their plunderings, and their stealings."

    As I write this, I find myself looking at Helaman 7:21 by accident, instead of 6:21. Helaman 7:21, although not mentioning secret combinations, might still be talking about them. Nephi was caught praying and he tells the people how they had forsaken God, "to get gain, to be praised of men . . . for the which ye do murder, and plunder and steal and bear false witness against your neighbor."

    What a summation of what I have said.

  29. "I've long tried to balance my inherent pessimism with President Hinckley's urgings to be more positive, and I think you've hit on exactly the way to do it: focus on the long-term victories, but don't deny or be silent about the many dark things in our world that threaten us now."

    That is one way to try keep a healthy balance between pessimism and optimism: be positive for the future but pessimist about the current state of things.

    Personally, I think one can be a pessimist and optimist at the same time. You don't have to think about the present versus the future. You can hold both concepts in the present.

    There really is a middle ground between "all is well in Zion" which is the extreme and dangerous kind of optimism and "everything is going to hell in a hand basket" kind of pessimism.

  30. >Obama is not tied in with the Communist Party.

    True. At least not directly and visibly tied in with the Communist Party, anyway.

    His ideas/philosophy, on the other hand, are thoroughly totalitarian-collectivist, and diametrically opposed to the cause of liberty, and completely incompatible with LDS doctrine.

    Obama, just as Lucifer did when he presented his plan, attempts to cloak slavery in the guise of good deeds. Lucifer's plan was not to force us to do evil. It was to force us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. That in and of itself made his plan evil and immoral. Lucifer continues his war against God now, and he has plenty of politicians (not just Obama and his ilk) more than willing to do his bidding.

    Personally, I prefer the Savior's plan: liberty.

  31. I understand the RightWing/Libertarian/Conservative position presented in some of these comments. I respectfully disagree with it.
    I think President Obama is a good and decent man trying to solve problems. I am LDS and I plan to vote for his re-election if he wants it.
    So far I like what he is doing. He is a reasonable, moderate, and intelligent man and is doing a great job!

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