The ones who struggle with ongoing, open-ended hardship are the optimists.
I don’t need to tell you that we are currently living through precisely ongoing hardships. And when we do, pessimism, or at least a harsh realism, might be our best approach.
I’m referring, of course, to the Covid-19 pandemic. But ours is a time of many challenges, and we would probably be best served to understand and accept its true gravity, if we are to get through them with our prospects, our lives and our minds intact.
What we ultimately require to get through the current hardships is resilience. Soul-destroying pessimism is not going to do it, and neither is delusional optimism. “Looking on the sunny side of life” is perhaps to do ourselves as much of a disservice as to allow ourselves to slip into a paralysing funk.
Realities are sobering. The planet remains overrun by a pandemic for which there is no cure, which has already infected at least 121 million people and cost 2.7 million lives. In South Africa, vaccine roll-out is so glacially slow that we are sitting ducks for the third wave, which is loading as I type this.
The knock-on effects on economies have been catastrophic, and financial desperation is now something we all live with. That desperation feeds further desperation, crime, corruption and social collapse.
A bumbling government stumbles from one small victory to the next, but appears overwhelmed by the sheer size of its challenges, and hamstrung by its own longstanding graft and incompetence.
In the midst of this chaos and bleakness it may be worth learning from the experience of a famous prisoner of war, who spend eight long years in a brutal Vietnamese internment camp, but was able to survive and emerge with his body broken, but his faculties intact.
Admiral James Stockdale was taken prisoner in 1965 after his fighter jet was shot down and he parachuted to the ground. He was held at Hoa Lo prison, also ironically known as the “Hanoi Hilton”, for its unforgiving harshness.
Stockdale was tortured and denied medical attention. He became active in prisoner resistance organising, which saw him placed in solitary confinement, in chains, in a windowless concrete cell.
He survived and went on to receive the US Medal Honour, becoming a senior navy officer, an author and an academic. He was a candidate for vice-president of the United States in 1992.
A famous quote of his gives an insight into his mental approach in managing to survive his eight years of captivity – essentially the entire Vietnam War.
When asked which prisoners didn’t survive, Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
While our current difficulties cannot be compared to torture and solitary confinement, they are indeed difficult, and a year of lockdowns takes its toll on the mind, while the economic challenges place just as much strain on our lives.
Without becoming doomsayers, perhaps our best chance of survival is to accept the reality of our current hardships. To give vent to our frustrations. To acknowledge how stuffed we are!
We are up the creek with an earbud for a paddle! It would be hilarious how screwed we are, if it wasn’t costing so many lives! We’ve never been through anything like this, so everyone involved is kind of working it out as they go along – not least our beleaguered government.
We wish them strength, but they’re battling, and it will be a long while yet, before we get the pandemic under control. Then the hard task of rebuilding our economy and creating opportunities for the poor people, who were already marginalised when the pandemic began.
These are the realities, and believing otherwise is delusional. We are not going to be out by Easter, and probably not by Christmas!
We can certainly keep getting up in the morning, trying our best for ourselves and our loved ones. But it needs to happen in a context of realism, of accepting how bad the situation is.
As admiral Stockale also said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”