Friday, July 04, 2008

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, by Jim Stockdale 

Jim Stockdale was a remarkable man, and that statement is one of the greatest understatements I may have ever written. He not only survived 7 plus years as a POW in North Vietnam, he made the experience a personal growth experience. He's a Medal of Honor recipient, as well as 4 Silver Stars, 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 3 Distinguished Service Medals. He developed a way to calculate natural logarithms and logs up to base 10 with a nail on a prison wall, and he constructed a lo log duplex deci-tri slide rule hat existed only in his head (I have trouble with logs using a calculator), solely to understand the natural beauty of math while in solitary confinement. A lay expert in philosophy, he pondered the nature of Epictetus's theories of Stoicism while surviving torture, isolation, and secret tap-one-letter-at-a-time communication with fellow POWs. I'm working my way through a collection of his speeches and essays. I just finished "Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior."

Stoicism is a philosophy that became really misunderstood in the thousands of years after the Greeks expounded on it. Put simply, you can only be a victim of yourself, regardless of how others act toward you. You are your own master. You must be detached from sickness, from happiness, from even the deaths of loved ones. Through good times and bad, you are the master of how you feel. Whatever divinity there is dictates your role in the world; you decide how well you play it. Somethings are beyond your control, and you accept those and decide to do your best with the things that are instead of lamenting what you can't control. This detachment is often interpreted as being uncaring, as being separated from the events of the world, but it isn't, not really. It's about not being a slave to the world, effecting the change that you can, and living the best life that you are able.

Stockdale had the chance to truly experience living his philosophy while a POW. He broke his leg as he hit the ground after ejecting from his plane, and he remembered Epictetus saying, "Lameness is an impediment to the leg, not the Will."

The speech describes his life in the prison, the isolation, the complex communication and social lives of the prisoners, the torture, the effects of evolving American foreign policy, and how Stoicism got him through. Read it, the speech is only 15 pages.

If the rest of the book is this powerful, then it will become one of my favorite and most reread books ever. The other speeches and essays I have read suggest that it is.

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