When the going gets tough
I will never complain or whine again.
Recently, I heard Captain Charlie Plumb describe his six years as a prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War at a meeting of health care providers. He was a fighter pilot, shot down in North Vietnam, captured, tortured and held in solitary confinement.
His life, after this experience, was completed altered. He was transformed, but as he said: “I became a better man because of it.” He realized that he had the capacity to make choices, exercise his freedom, despite his captivity. His body was imprisoned, but his mind was not.
He had to stop seeing himself as a victim of misfortune, and instead, recognize that he was in control of his attitude. He could find a way to survive and make the best of his awful circumstances. The POW’s, all in solitary confinement, found a way to communicate with each other. It was this connection that enabled he and others to persevere.
Fortunately, most of us will never have to endure such hardships. But there is a lesson for all of us. It’s up to us to decide how we want to respond to adversity. Interestingly, very few of the Vietnam era POW’s suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder compared to the overall population of Vietnam Vets, despite their horrific circumstances. Many became leaders of industry, the military, or in government.
He did go through his dark night, covered with boils, injured, starved, and dehydrated. He fell into a state of despair and hopelessness. But with encouragement, he realized that he could choose differently. He could survive.
Why is it that two individuals in similar circumstances will react so differently? It’s hard to understand why one may fall into deep depression and the other will grow stronger. It doesn’t seem fair. But the ability to adopt a useful mental attitude is key—something we refer to as resilience.
After listening to his story, he made a number of points that can help all of us:
- We may not be able to choose our circumstances, but we can choose our attitude. How we look at something is up to us. We can approach adversity as an opportunity to grow or as a catastrophe. It’s our choice.
- Our biggest friend or our worst enemy is our own minds. Captain Plumb— “My biggest enemy was not my 8-foot cell or the North Vietnamese, but it was the 8 inches between my ears”. He notes that it’s easy to get “boxed in” by our way of thinking, mental habits, or by being rigid in the way we see what’s in front of us.
- Recognize that we are all connected. Years later, Captain Plumb met the man who had packed his parachute. That man’s care saved his life. Who packs your parachute? Who is behind the scenes helping you? Whose parachute do you pack?
- When the going gets tough don’t give up. Find your “North Star” that gives you hope and purpose. For Charlie, it was his faith and his wife. Focus on what is at the center of your life—that will keep you going in a positive direction. It will help you remember what is truly important to you.
- Don’t mourn, organize. Taking action, finding purpose, or trying a strategy helps us remember that we do have control over ourselves.