Who has the worst chance of surviving a prisoner of war camp?
According to General Stockdale, who was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War and tortured 22 times before finally making it home, it was mainly optimists who did not make it out alive.
He explains: “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.”
In contrast to false optimism, Stockdale attributes his survival to realistic faith: “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.” He concluded: “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.”
Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich tells this story on the Fastcompany website as an object lesson in how to build a business, summing it all up with what he called: The Stockdale Paradox – Faith trumps optimism.
Widrich applies the Stockdale Paradox by arguing that businesses should abandon the mirage of silver bullets, the false hope that “just one more thing, tweak, etc., is going to turn everything around.” Instead, they should work hard, keep faith in their product, and persevere to see gradual growth and success.
But we can apply this principle to our spiritual lives and ministries too. Many Christians and churches seem to entertain unending optimism in “the next big thing” to make the “big breakthrough” in their lives and churches. The consequences are increasing numbers of disillusioned Christians and churches, some of whom are dying from broken hearts.
If we want to avoid this, let’s abandon all optimism that the next big thing, ministry, personality, sermon, technique, film, strategy, etc., will fix us or the church. Such “silver bullets” distract us from reality and have a habit of blowing up in our faces.
Instead let’s confront the brutal reality of our lives, our families, our churches, and our society. But, at the same time, let’s also keep steady faith in the Word of God, especially its sure promises of personal perseverance and the ultimate triumph of faith and of the Church of Christ.
Optimism is not faith. But faith is optimistic.