Monday, March 03, 2008

The Strength of Willpower

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill.

My Friend Mike Gardner recently sent me a copy of "Courage Under Fire" This is the story of James Bond Stockdale's experience in a prisoner of war camp in Viet Nam. The story chronicles the extreme conditions that the prisoners had to endure while held in captivity. The story talks about how the prisoners were able to establish a bond with one another and develop a code of unity and strength that allowed them to overcome very harsh conditions and often brutal treatment. More importantly, it is a story of the human spirit and the strength of human willpower. Willpower is the ability to exert one's will, or thoughts, over one's actions. "Courage Under Fire" showed me that man has the ability to tap into this willpower and overcome some incredible obstacles.

I don't think that I will ever be able to truly understand how Jim Stockdale and his fellow prisoners were able to endure their circumstances. What they were able to think about to give them the courage and strength to overcome their circumstances had to be very powerful. I cannot even begin to imagine their predicament and their sheer resolve to survive. The conditions were so deplorable that Jim Stockdale goes on to explain that it was impossible to explain the ordeal to people because they could not even ask questions that were pertinent.

They faced failure on countless occasions. Failure meant far more to them than it does for us. It meant their very lives. The worst part for them was it meant being made to feel like a traitor and experiencing shame. These men fought a war of the mind and they had to revisit their resolve countless times. Over and over they were beaten and tortured to the point of breaking this resolve. On several occasions they became depressed, despondent, felt irrelevant, suffered from extreme feelings of shame, loneliness, and emotions that I am sure most of us never encounter. Still yet, they survived. I am not sure how, but much of it goes back to the willpower of the men that shared that horrendous experience.

Most of us will never be exposed to that kind of trial. However, we will face times in our lives when we have to overcome obstacles. Some more severe than others. When those times come we can draw strength and inspiration from stories such as "Courage under Fire". Knowing that most of the trials I will face in life pale in comparison to Mr. Stockdales strengthens me. It allows me to know that I can face the failures I have experienced with renewed enthusiasm. I can go from failure to failure and realize that I have abilities far greater than I know. It is a matter of how I allow myself to think. Courage under Fire does not make me think that I can control my environment or my circumstances. It does make me realize that I can control my response to those circumstances.

I will never have the kind of strength that Jim Stockdale had, but I can have the strength to face my problems. If you get a chance to read Courage Under Fire I think you will come to the same conclusion. Even though his triumph over his captors is an incredible feat, I don't think it is Jim Stockdale's greatest accomplishment. I think Jim Stockdale's greatest accomplishment is in the message his victory presents. That message is one of hope.The hope that we can prevail in our darkest of times. The hope that we can choose our response in a given situation. The hope that we can endure difficult times and endure those times with a sense of renewed enthusiasm.

The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.


Linda said...

This reminds us that when we truly think we have problems, we need to step back and do a reality check. There is always someone with a much greater problem than the one that seems to be monopolizing my time and thoughts. Even in my circumstance, positive thinking is the best medicine. If it can work for such dire circumstances, surely it will help me with mine.

rocky said...

William Ernest Henley in his timeless poem "Invictus" stated I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. What he was really saying is that we have the ability to choose in any given circumstance.That choice can be either positive or negative. The more we exercise that concept the stronger it becomes for us. James Stockdale exercised this belief until he perfected it. I believe we can do the same.