Optimism, Confidence, James Stockdale

Here’s a little forest of ideas I just wandered through.

First, I watched this movie.

Thea idea is pretty simpel and intuitive. People do better when they are optimistic. I agree with the overall point, but the issue is not optimism, it is confidence, and they are subtly different. I think confidence is a complex thing, but it is not an outlook and it is not faith, two things that I think get bled into optimism. Optimism is the tendency to look at a situation and to see the best in it, but that is not confidence. Confidence can along with someone who sees disaster lurking around every corner or in someone who thinks everyone will turn out right. Rather, action is a kind of knowledge, it is knowledge HOW to attack problems and perhaps knowledge THAT one has this attacking skill. It is the difference between “learned helplessness” and other hard-to-characterize psychological states that can overtake people when they do not see opportunities. People without confidence see certain actions as impossible or closed off. Someone without confidence may not start a business, even though they are eminently qualified to do so. They may not ask another person out, even though they are kind and attractive. Confidence then is a way to unfold the world as one of POSSIBILITIES FOR ACTION.

A chair offers the possibility of sitting and level, stable ground offers the prospect of walking. These are such banal actions that we don’t think about them, but confidence is just like these basic interactions with the world but amplified. Someone who is confidence knows that they can adapt to meet a challenge and persevere in the face of unseen obstacles.

So throw away optimism, I prefer to think about the trait being pointed at in this video as confidence, which is different than optimism.

So, all of this brings me to the Stockdale paradox. I read briefly about John Stockdale, one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest heroes, perhaps more heroic than John McCain (though comparisons of heroism are of course shallow). He was captured in Vietnam and survived all types of torture. He is one of the most highly decorated Naval officers of all time.

Anyway, there’s not really a paradox, but he expressed the view that people who thought they would be released went crazy. They were too optimistic, or FOOLISHLY optimistic. His view on the other hand was realistic. He knew his situation was terrible and disastrous. But he said this:

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.”

To me, this is absolutely critical, because it’s not just confidence. It’s not just that he never doubted he would succeed in resisting the brutal torture of the Viet Cong (take a minute to appreciate what kind of person has confidence like that). But not only that, he VALUED the experience. He didn’t just think things would turn out alright, rather, he thought things were alright, because he was in the midst of a defining and valuable life moment.

And now I’ll just make the point that I’ve been wanting to hone in on for many years now, which is that pain is good. I don’t mean that’s it good because it helps you do something else or focuses you. I mean it’s good, full stop. Excessive pain is not good, and it’s not good to inflict pain on others, but somehow or other, pain, tribulation, and difficulty, are all necessary ingredients to a good life. They unlock our potential, add confidence, and inject meaning.

Some have charged the view that I have just put forward as a misguided privileged view. A pseudo-philosophy that looks callously on the suffering of others. Not so. Concern for others is paramount and alleviating suffering is good. Doing these things is just another way that a life gains importance and meaning. We hear this point, in words remarkably similar to John Stockdale, a quote from Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor. Notice the similarity to the above quote.

Fundamentally, therefore, any  man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, can say with confidence, as he does throughout his book, that there was something valuable and liberating in his suffering, then I think there is something to that position.

The difficult is in saying why pain and suffering can contribute to a good life. Clearly if pain were good in the way that happiness is good, then we could help others by INFLICTING pain on them. But we know that is false. We do good only by alleviating pain and suffering. Still, I have the thought that pain is good because because it sets the conditions for a valuable activity. For instance, our ability to laugh is a condition on the activity of joking around with each other. Pain by contrast sets the condition for the activity of heroism. It is right and good to fight against pain, but if we were ever to fully end suffering in the world, completely nullify difficulty or frustration, then my claim is that we would have lost something. We would have lost, among other things, the possibility for heroism.

If we tore all the basketball hoops in the world down, we would lose the ability to play basketball (until we built some new ones obviously). If we ended pain, the same thing would happen. We would lose the ability for heroism.

We are thus in an interesting moral situation with regard to pain. We must make pain our enemy and strive against it, but we must never fully succeed. Of course, if we abolished pain, people might still want it in some cases. Maybe some runners would want some pain while they ran, to give them runners high, or complete the feeling of the activity taken as a whole. But pain paradoxically cannot serve its purpose if we can pull at it like a drug, streaming it only as we want it. The whole ability of pain’s function to ennoble us depends on the fact that it does NOT respond to our wishes. When we are put in a difficult situation, like being in Vietnam, we cannot choose to turn pain on and off at will. The heroism of Stockdale comes from the fact that he endured what was thrown at him. Not that he turned on a pain chip in his brain until he was done having enough pain.

In other words, I claim that morality sets the boundaries for what is an acceptable balance between pleasure and pain in the world. And looking at ordinary morality, this is not so strange. Pretend I can sacrifice in order to help someone, and that the person who I help will not feel pleasure to a degree greater than the pain I feel. But imagine the person I’m helping is badly off and I’m fairly well off. Ordinary morality requires my SACRIFICE. A utilitarian would claim I have no obligation. If my pain will not generate more pleasure than is lost by my efforts, I should not act. But ordinary morality contains the notion of sacrifice. It says I should help someone who is worse off if I am better off even if their gain does not outweigh my loss. If pain is bad, then this is hard to explain. If pain can be good in some cases, i.e., when I’m helping someone worse off then myself, it can be ennobling. And this is what we find.


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