How does one survive when life seems to spiral out of control? The experiences of one prisoner of war (POW) can provide us with valuable insight on where to find hope in hopeless times.
Before he was a United States senator, the late John McCain was a Navy pilot who flew ground-attack aircraft. After serving in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, McCain requested a combat tour. Upon granting this request, he served in the bombing campaign of the Vietnam War: Operation Rolling Thunder, flying the A-4 Skyhawk. Reported to be a man who enjoyed life, frequently expressed through partying, McCain also had a bit of a rebellious nature to him, often disagreeing with his supervisors. Despite this however, his superiors saw him as a good pilot as his decorations and commendations demonstrated. His personal life and military career were on an upward, positive trajectory.
On October 26, 1967, however, McCain’s life took a dramatic turn. McCain was shot down on his 23rd bombing run over the city of Hanoi. Parachuting into a lake, Vietnamese adversaries quickly captured him. In the emergency exit from his Skyhawk, he sustained multiple injuries—including two broken arms and a broken leg. While being captured, McCain was bayoneted. Taken as a POW, McCain received severe and consistent torture for his refusal to comply with his captors’ demand to confess to war crimes. The torture he received permanently damaged his body, rendering him completely unable to lift his arms above his shoulders. McCain, along with many other American Service Members, endured captivity for several tortuous years. On March 14, 1973, five and half years after his capture, McCain was among 108 other POWs repatriated to the United States.
Our Own Prison Experience
Few of us will ever face the kind of difficulties McCain experienced while a POW in Vietnam. We will not likely face torture, prolonged isolation, starvation, or the other horrendous acts imposed on the POWs. Considering their circumstances, the POWs in Vietnam would be justified in losing any sense of hope. While none of us would cast judgment on them regardless, many of them did not lose hope.
Perhaps not to the same severity, most of us will at some point face a blindsiding tragedy or two. We will feel as though life is going well and then—BAM—life starts to spiral out of control, left with little hope for a good future. Though not prisoners of an actual war, it may feel as though we are prisoners of our present situation—repeatedly struck down by our circumstances. When we find ourselves in these situations, is there something we can learn from McCain and others who did not lose hope?
Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness
The above account of McCain truly seems hopeless. Yet, in an interview from May 1973, just a few months after his release, McCain recounts two factors which led to his survival. The good news is these factors are employable in any type of desperate situation—whether one be a prisoner of war or a prisoner in some other hopeless situation. The two factors provide a living hope, eclipsing
the worst of situations: relationship with others and God—as well as the hope and strength derived from those relationships.
Relationship With Others “Makes All the Difference”
Kept in solitary confinement for more than two years, McCain could not see, talk to, or communicate with any of his fellow POWs. Yet, he and others risked punishment just to communicate simple and relatively insignificant information. Why did they repeatedly risk beatings just to communicate?
“Communication with your fellow prisoners was of the utmost value—the difference between being able to resist and not being able to resist,” McCain explains. “Communication primarily served to keep up morale…. The most important thing for survival is communication with someone, even if it’s only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up. It makes all the difference.”1
POWs often report how relationship—often expressed as “communication” when isolation is a common punishment—is vital to surviving hopeless situations. The ability for one to know he is not alone and someone else cares “makes all the difference.”
Relationship With God Sustains
As good as having a friend can be, receiving that proverbial wink or tap on the wall for encouragement is not always be possible. Friends may not be near, or they may not even be aware of the difficulty we are facing. What else can we learn from McCain’s captivity? He endured several prolonged seasons of isolation with little-to-no contact with others. Moreover, during his torture sessions, it was often only him and the torturer in the room. Supportive friendship, even if only a room or two down the hall, felt infinitesimally far away. Who could McCain turn to during these times?
“I was finding that prayer helped,” described McCain. “It wasn’t a question of asking for superhuman strength or for God to strike the North Vietnamese dead. It was asking for moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing. I asked for comfort when I was in pain, and sometimes I received relief. I was sustained in many times of trial.”
Did God remove McCain from the situations he faced or take all pain away? No. But God was present. It was not just McCain in the room with the torturer, God was there too, sustaining McCain through the trials he faced. McCain and others found abundant comfort in their Lord, Jesus Christ, during confinement. So much so, McCain later became the de-facto-chaplain of the prison camp when the POWs were able to interact with each other.1 Faith in God provided a sustaining hope which dwarfed the hopelessness of their situation.
The Eternal Truth of Relationship
The two factors that led to the survival of McCain and his fellow POWs, providing them hope in a hopeless situation, confirms a biblical truth found in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help…. A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken” (4: 9,10,12, NLT).
It is likely we all will face moments where life spirals out of control, thrusting us into bleak situations. This is why readiness is critical: We must endeavor to cultivate relationships that can help us beforehand. Both prior to and during our hopeless moments, we must seek out others to help us … and be that friend for others as well.
Even if we find ourselves in a situation where others are not present, where we cannot find someone to lean on, God is ever-present with us. We can turn to Jesus, who himself faced despairing times, and know we have a Savior who can, in all ways, empathize with our suffering. When we turn to God in prayer, we can expect he will come alongside, and sustain us, in our darkest moments.
God promises us he will never leave us nor forsake us (read Hebrews 13:5). This is a sure hope we can stand on in hopeless times.