“There can be no such thing as being the ‘victim’ of another. You can only be a ‘victim’ of yourself. It is all how you discipline your mind.” – James Stockdale
It was a bright and sunny afternoon on September 9, 1965 in Vietnam. James Stockdale, a ranking U.S. Naval Officer, was flying his single A-4 fighter plane over Vietnamese territory when the engine burst into flames and he was forced to crash land into a tree. Stockdale ejected himself into a small village where a mob of fifteen locals nearly beat him to death leaving him permanently crippled. He was then taken as a prisoner by the North Vietnamese army where he was imprisoned in the Hao Lo, or the “Hanoi Hilton,” along with several hundred other soldiers and Vietnamese criminals. Stockdale spent over seven years in captivity where he was subjected to a constant barrage of mental and physical torture – including attempted psychological reprogramming and being hung similar to that of crucifixion. His fellow prisoners would tell lies about him in an effort to get better cells and food for themselves. Despite the best efforts of his captures, Stockdale’s spirit never broke. When the war was declared over he became a well-known decorated military hero who even campaigned for a Vice-presidential nomination. He toured globally and wrote books on his survival of the extraordinary psychological challenges that he faced. So what was the secret weapon that Stockdale drew upon to thrive during his time in captivity? Epictetus’s ancient teachings in stoicism.
Epictetus was an ancient philosopher that lived over 2000 years ago. Born as a slave, he had faced a life full of hardships, including the inability to use his left leg and wanted to come up with a way to live a happier and tranquil life. Epictetus constantly challenged his perceptions to ensure that his thoughts were being objective, rational and realistic. His idea was that if he could separate out the things in his life that he could control from the things he could not control, he could come up with a way to achieve and maintain tranquility through his mind.
Epictetus’s ancient Handbook of Stoic Philosophy outlines this idea in that external circumstances, including how other people treat you, should not control how you feel. Rather your feelings are controlled by the attitude you take toward external circumstances. The teachings are in a sense mind control – but with you being able to control your mind and just your mind only.
To put this into modern day use, we have to understand that there are things in our life that we can control and things in life that we cannot control and it is important to differentiate between the two. Things that reside in our mind such as our thoughts, attitudes and actions are under our control. However there are things that we cannot control such as bad luck, external events, and most importantly, the actions others take towards us. We can also apply this to everyday arguments or disagreements we may get into with others. When we let someone else’s words get inside of us and upset us, we are giving them the power to take control and make us feel a certain type of way. The actions of others will always influence our lives. But when you refuse to allow other people to control your mind and your emotions you gain true freedom and power. Instead of letting their words make you feel upset, use mind control to maintain your emotional balance and walk away with your dignity in tact.
When James Stockdale was studying philosophy at Stanford he had memorized several pieces of Epictetus’s teachings by heart. And when he was being extortioned in a prison of torture he drew upon those teachings in order to “maintain self-respect and dignity in defiance of those who would break your spirit for their own end.” (Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, 1995). Stockdale knew he could not control the actions of his captures. He knew he could not control how he was treated, if he was beat, or if the guards just went ahead and killed him. But what he was able to control was the fact that no matter what happened his captors could not control his internal attitude – his thoughts and reactions. And it was this level of thinking that allowed him to emerge from seven and a half years of captivity as a decorated war hero.
It is common in life for people to feel upset when they try to change things that are beyond their control. Studying the works of Epictetus, James Stockdale, and Victor Frankl (see my previous post on Logotherpy) we are taught that if we focus our energy on things that we can control, such as our thoughts and attitudes, we have a means of surviving even the most difficult of situations. As Stockdale put it “there is no such thing as being a ‘victim’ of another. You can only be a ‘victim’ of yourself. It’s all how you discipline your mind.”