When the world says give up, hope whispers try one more time.
North Korea’s been in the news a lot lately, huh? This Twitter spat between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un? You have to wonder about the wisdom of calling the leader of one of the world’s most repressive regimes “Little Rocket Man”, don’t you?
I didn’t really know much about North Korea until I read The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee with David John. Do you know that if your life is threatened in North Korea, say, by the fact your house is burning down, what the most important thing is to save? Hint: it’s not yourself, your spouse, or your kids. It’s the portraits of the leaders, of course.
For Hyeonseo Lee, ideological indoctrination began day one: “My kindergarten had a large wood-burning stove in the middle of the classroom and walls painted with colourful scenes of children performing gymnastics, children in uniform, and of a North Korean soldier simultaneously impaling a Yankee, a Japanese and a South Korean soldier with his rifle bayonet.”
“A gulag posing as a nation,” is how author Suki Kim describes North Korea in her TED Talk, Vancouver 2015. Suki Kim, who is from South Korea, did the very dangerous and potentially deadly thing of posing as a teacher and missionary there in 2011.
And did you know that from 1994-1998, it’s estimated that 240,000 to 3.5 million North Koreans died in the famine there? Floods, drought and the collapse of the Soviet bloc exacerbated it yes, but economic mismanagement significantly contributed. In his TED Talk from 2013, Joseph Kim, who survived the famine, talks about the humiliation, the hopelessness of gnawing hunger. He watched his father die from it. His mother and sister fled to China and then, when they did not return, he fled to China as well, ultimately ending up in the U.S.
How did he survive? Well, he stole bread from food carts. He had to. But he did not give in to hopelessness. “Hope is personal,” Joseph Kim says. “Hope is something no one can give you. You have to manufacture it.”
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins calls this the Stockdale Paradox. “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. And at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
The Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in the POW camp referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was imprisoned from 1965-1973 and tortured many times. When asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”
Huh? I thought you were supposed to be optimistic! Geez. But Stockdale says that the ones who thought they were getting out at Christmas then didn’t, then thought they’d be out by Easter then didn’t, then Thanksgiving, and so on, well, they ended up dying of a “broken heart”.
“This is a very important lesson,” he told Collins. “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.”
So, I guess you could say hope is not blind.
“Life is unfair,” writes Collins. “Sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no ‘reason’, no one to blame. It might be disease; it might be injury; it might be an accident; it might be losing a loved one; it might be getting swept away in a political shake-up; it might be getting shot down over Vietnam and thrown into a POW camp for eight years.”
Collins believes that if you can apply the Stockdale Paradox, you’ll come back stronger from life’s challenges.
Now, let’s all manufacture hope that recent name-calling by the current leaders of North Korea and the U.S. doesn’t put us in a situation to have to apply the Stockdale Paradox in a really YUGE way.