There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not from the dumpster fire that is 2020.
In a year full of stressors — the pandemic, the economic crisis, civil unrest, political upheaval, and health issues affecting those close to us — we can see the end in sight. Vaccine breakthroughs. A new administration. Treatments, procedures, and an upward path. It’s easier to hope again.
But before that hope appeared, joy-finders had struggled to see the silver lining. Pure optimism is empty candy calories; it can help you feel good, but cannot sustain you for a prolonged period of time. Just ask Admiral Stockdale.
The so-called “Stockdale Paradox” is the commingling of optimism and realism required to persevere in a crisis. It was named after Admiral Stockdale, who spent over 7 years repeatedly tortured as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” When asked who struggled the most with imprisonment, Stockdale replied, “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.”
The secret, according to Stockdale, was to focus on the expected outcome. “Despite all those circumstances,” he said, “I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail — get out of this — but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.”
Stockdale’s solution to the paradox has been very appropriate for getting through a year of turmoil with no immediately obvious end in sight. In his words, “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.”
It is that unwavering faith in the outcome — in the return to normalcy that everyone craves — that sustains our survival through the winter of crisis and gets us through to the joy of spring and rebirth. The path may not be certain, but the outcome is… if we are to maintain the hope and joy for the future that gets us through the present.