The Value of Everything
What does it take to survive as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam? Admiral James Stockdale, an American POW who heroically resisted torture and torment for eight years, explained to author Jim Collins how he found the courage to carry on:
“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...”
Stockdale’s powerful sense of optimism inspires. However, Stockdale doesn’t see himself as an optimist. In fact, he explained to Collins that the POW’s least likely to survive were the optimists, because: “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 they died of a broken heart.”
Ironically, Stockdale is optimistic about the long term future, yet pessimistic about the short term, steadfastly resistant to any false hopes. Collins labeled Stockdale’s views on optimism “The Stockdale Paradox”.
This paradox resembles Maimonides’ views on the Messiah. Belief in the Messiah is an optimistic vision of worldwide redemption. Maimonides is quite clear that faith in the Messiah is a fundamental belief of Judaism; yet, at the same time, Maimonides is emphatic, both in his legal code and in his letters, that one must be careful not to speculate about when and under what circumstances the Messiah will arrive. Maimonides refuses to open the door to Messianic fervor, well aware of the destruction brought by the false Messiahs of his generation. Much like the “Stockdale Paradox”, Maimonides paradoxically demands that we dream of the Messiah’s arrival, yet at the same time Maimonides ignores the possibility the Messiah will come in the near future.
At the heart of both of these paradoxes is a riddle about optimism. Optimism seems to have two definitions; one refers to being contented with whatever we have (“the glass is half full”), and the other refers to hope for a better future ("it’ll all turn out for the best in the end”). These two definitions are dramatically different. One reflects acceptance, the willingness to be satisfied with whatever life gives you; the other reflects dreams and aspirations, motivated by a profound desire for change. Indeed, the common use of the word “optimism” is itself a paradox, because it demands of us to dream of a better future while being absolutely happy with our present situation!
While accepting both of the two definitions of optimism may seem paradoxical, it is not illogical. Oscar Wilde famously said that “a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Optimism would then be the opposite of cynicism, with the optimist seeing the value in everything, unconcerned about the cost. Of course the optimist values the future, and dreams of a better world and a better life. But the optimist can also see how precious life is, even in a POW camp; an optimist can see the enormous value in pursuing one’s duties, no matter what the costs are, even in the most horrific of places. Optimism sees the value of the present while embracing the potential of the future.
What sustains people like Stockdale who have overcome their ordeals is a dogged refusal to let go of their duties and their dreams. But even optimists sometimes falter when suffering. In March 1945, the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhev, Rabbi Israel Spira, was overwhelmed by despair. He had lost all of his family, and was alone to the world, and he walked up to the electrified fence at Bergen Belsen in order to end it all. A woman, witnessing the Rabbi, began to speak to him. She told the Rabbi: “how can you stand here now and think of ending your life? A day will come and God will bless you 0nce more; you will be grateful that your life was spared. And besides, the world needs you!”.
Rabbi Spira stepped away from the fence. He realized it was his duty to be courageous and optimistic.
From then on, until his death in 1989, Rabbi Spira fulfilled his duties; and he built a better future for himself, and inspired others to do the same.