When James Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam, he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. He spent seven years being tortured and subjected to unimaginable loneliness and terror. He had little choice over the fact that he was shot down, or that he was taken prisoner.
But what he told himself—and what helped him endure this terrible ordeal—was the sense of agency that Stoicism gave him, the sense that he could ultimately use this experience as fuel.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
The sheer bravery and strength Stockdale exhibited by truly embodying this notion of amor fati gives one goosebumps, even some 50 years later. It’s just unreal.
It’s a reminder that for everything outside of our control, we retain—at the core of our being—an incredible power: The power to choose what we do with what happens to us. The power to decide what role an event will play in our lives. The power to write the end of our own story.
No one can take that away from us. People can hurt us. Money can be lost. Jobs can disappear. Cars can crash into each other. Stoicism can’t change what happened. No philosophy is a time machine.
But what we can do, what the Stoic practice is meant to help us do, is to prevail over what happened, and decide what comes next.