“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.”– Epictetus
James Stockdale was languishing in Hoa Lo Prison, commonly referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Far from home and having been shot down deep inside enemy territory during the Vietnam War, his attention was not on his plight, but on the suffering of fellow servicemen. They were trapped in this veritable hell on earth. Stockdale, however, was not without resources. The most valuable of which, in his opinion, was a philosophical understanding of how to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.
Years earlier, as a graduate-level philosophy student about to depart (again) on military service, a mentor handed him a small pamphlet, The Enchiridion. It was a short collection of advice by freed-slave turned philosopher Epictetus transcribed nearly two thousand years earlier. Having digested and mulled over the guidance offered by Epictetus during several years of active duty, Stockdale was able to bring forth a deeper understanding of life, suffering, strength and resilience during the most harrowing experience of his life. I previously wrote about the role philosophy played in his storied career.
The resolve Stockdale found was more than the self-soothing that comes from positive thinking. It was a way to reliable navigate an impossibly challenging circumstance with the highest levels of engagement and effectiveness, even when he had no mental energy left to force a positive thought. This is the power of understanding something deeply, in a way that rings true. Such an understanding has “staying power” even when memory and willpower seem to fail.
Epictetus taught many things, but in particular, he understood that the world in which humans live is split into two apparent realities. The first reality, and the one that torments people, is what we take in as our lived experience and circumstances. This reality may be pleasant or terrible. It’s everything we see and all that we get (or don’t get) in the world. It’s the reality of hopes, dreams, trials and tribulations. This “outer reality” is out of our control, and yet, envelopes all our attention, causing untold suffering.
The other reality is the inner world. The internally generated reality is within the grasp and impact of the human being. It is the values one holds and the meaning, feeling and thinking about what is going on. This inner realm, left unexplored by most, holds the keys to resilience and inner poise. It can be molded to the desired form, like soft clay, through the will and conscious attention. It also has innate, and seemingly miraculous, properties unto itself.
“So what Epictetus was telling his students was that there can be no such thing as being the ”victim“ of another. You can only be a ”victim” of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind.”– James Stockdale
What Stockdale learned about resilience, was that it was built into the design of the mind. It could be found when you dove deep into the capacity and truth of your inner reality. While life circumstances are infinitely complex and beyond the reach of absolute control, the inner realm of experience is within our grasp.
Moreover, this inner world has many remarkable qualities, one of which is the capacity to maintain calm, poise and clarity of mind, despite circumstances. This absolute freedom can be found even in a literal “prison”. Paradoxically, it’s from this inner feeling of freedom that we can more fruitfully engage in challenging circumstances and have our best chance of prevailing against the odds.
After seven-and-half years captive, having been tortured countless times, Stockdale was freed. His leadership under duress helped many other prisoners survive when circumstances would have made it easy for them to give up mentally (and physically). While such an ordeal is something we hope to never face, the insights Stockdale (and Epictetus) speak of are something important to hold deal. We can lean into the power and potential of our inner world when dealing with whatever challenges we face, no matter how big or small they may seem.