In our last several +1s, we’ve been exploring some James Stockdale wisdom.
We talked about Heroes (starting with the one looking back at you in the mirror!), we chiseled some integrity, and we assumed our Heroic roles as our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.
All of those Ideas were pulled from Stockdale’s great book called Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.
I mentioned the fact that Stockdale was, essentially, a practicing Stoic.
Today we’re going to talk about HOW he moved from Theory to Practice to Mastery in an unimaginably challenging ordeal.
We’ll let him explain it for us in a moment.
First, a little more context. Then we’ll talk about the wisdom Stockdale had “ready at hand”—which is the literal translation of the title of his favorite book: Epictetus’s Enchiridion.
Stockdale’s favorite philosopher was Epictetus. In fact, he often refers to him as his “patron saint.”
Epictetus is also MY favorite teacher. His Heroic portrait is intensely gazing at me from my office wall as I type this.
Epictetus was the former slave turned philosopher who influenced the guys who influenced the great Roman Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius. (Note: He was Aurelius’s favorite teacher as well.)
In his late 30’s (before being shot down and imprisoned), Stockdale was an up-and-coming Navy pilot with a very bright future who spent a couple years at Stanford getting his Master’s in international policy. He finished the program early and decided to see if he could explore philosophy during his remaining six months.
Quite fortuitously, he connected with a Stanford professor named Phil Rhinelander who became his mentor. As a parting gift, Rhinelander gave him a copy of Epictetus’s Enchiridion—thinking Stockdale would enjoy the wisdom.
Little did he know that, three years later, Stockdale would be shot down and imprisoned for eight years—with this going through his mind during his last moments of freedom:
“On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane—the cockpit walls not even three feet apart—which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’”
The cornerstone of Epictetus’s wisdom?
“Of things some are in our power, and others are not... examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to the things which are not in our power: and if it relates to anything which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you.”
If it’s within your control, fantastic.
If it’s not, then be prepared to say it does not concern you.
Stockdale tells us: “I want to … explain what memories of The Enchiridion I did have ‘ready at hand’ when I ejected from that airplane. What I had in hand was the understanding that a Stoic always keeps separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are up to him and (B) those things that are not up to him or, another way of saying it, (A) those things that are within his power and (B) those things that are beyond his power or, still another way of saying it, (A) those things that are within the grasp of his will, his free will, and (B) those things that are beyond it.”
He continues by saying: “Among the relatively few things that are up to me, within my power, within my will, are my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my attitude toward what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.”
That’s Stoicism 101.
That’s Today’s +1.
Some things are within your control.
Others are not.
May we have the wisdom to know the difference, the humility (and the self-mastery!) to accept the things that are not within our control and the courage (and the self-mastery!) to change the things that are within our control.