We’ve talked before about the so-called Stockdale Paradox—the blazing determination inside Admiral James Stockdale that allowed him to believe that, despite his imprisonment and torture, he would not only survive but thrive because of his experience. There’s something similar in Meditations where Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on the plague and the wars and the troubles that beset his reign, actually says to himself, “It’s fortunate that this happened to me.”
The Stoics always believed they could find a way. But it’s important to understand where this was coming from, lest we confuse resilience with naivete or worse. In a recent episode of Ramit Sethi’s wonderful podcast, one of the guests explained how his father, despite having to raise his kids in a trailer while making $30,000 a year, inspired his kids to believe that everything was going to be OK, that they’d get through it, that they would find a way. This was a wonderful and important lesson, except now as an adult working as a mortgage broker, the man seemed remarkably naive about the potential vulnerability of his industry to the turbulence of the economy. What if the market turns, he was asked. “I trust that my company will take care of me,” he said. Wasn’t he concerned that he had so little in the way of savings or emergency funds? No, he said, it’ll all work out. My company will take care of me.
The word for this attitude is not “Stoic,” it is Panglossian, a term derived from the novel Candide by Voltaire. A Stoic believes that they’ll find a way through no matter what happens, yes, but they are also realistic. They try not to depend on things outside their control.
When asked who fared worst in the North Vietnamese prison camp, Stockdale singled out one group: the optimists. They were convinced they’d be rescued soon. They were convinced it was going to be over any day now. Ramit’s mortgage broker guest went one step further, he was a fantasist. He dreamt of a reality that simply didn’t exist. We cannot be so naive or excessively optimistic or wishful, as to place our fate in the hands of others. Like the Stoics, we must never expect, or hope, or believe that anyone is coming to save us. Because it’s the expectation, the entitlement, the naivete that crushes us.