“Who didn’t make it out? Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
― Admiral Stockdale and Jim Collins
Good to Great, Jim Collins
Admiral Jim Stockdale, was the highest ranking prisoner of war held captive by the North Vietnamese for more than seven years. His perspective is known as the “Stockdale Paradox,” a concept described in Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins describes how Stockdale had no reason to believe he would make it out alive. In spite of a grim reality that included solitary confinement, torture and near starvation, Stockdale managed to stay alive by balancing his hope for the future (optimism) with the reality of the harshness of day-to-day life (realism).
Reflecting on his years of imprisonment he said, “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.”
Most of us will never face the extreme circumstances encountered by Admiral Stockdale, but we can benefit from his perspective, especially during a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—something the military calls VUCA. In times of VUCA, we don’t have a clear picture of the future. We don’t know where we’re going or how long it will last. Circumstances can change in a heartbeat creating questions about all we thought we knew. Especially in times like these, the Stockdale Paradox, which balances optimism with realism, has special significance.
We can cling to optimism, #wereallinthistogether, and avoid the reality of feelings of isolation and loneliness. Sure, you can connect with friends and family online via Zoom, Facetime, etc., but it’s not the same. Human beings were created to need touch. Go without it long enough and your ability to thrive will falter.
Let’s be honest, although the stay-at-home order in your area may be modified sooner than elsewhere, life is really not going to return to “normal” in the sense it once was normal for some time. Although small businesses may begin to reopen, many experts are suggesting participation in large events will be excluded for the foreseeable future—at least until August or later. This means no sporting events, no concerts, no summer camp or programs for large groups of children. We’re not certain what it will mean for churches and restaurants, parades and outdoor programs. The reality is that it will very likely be quite different for months, dramatically impacting our summertime plans, family gatherings and other recreational activities.
What will you do?
How will you handle the new here and now? How will this summer be memorable and meaningful for you and your family?
Perhaps we should allow a conversation between Gandalf and Frodo to be our guide:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Someday this will be over. We will go back to greater personal freedom, more gatherings, and more human contact. In the meantime, let’s not waste the moment—the one and only opportunity we will have to spend these days with the ones we love most, creating memories to last a lifetime.