On The Stockdale Paradox

I have a confession to make: I am finding it hard to find balance in my life these days, especially when living with my parents and having so many different demands on my time pulling me in too many directions.

This morning, the reality is sinking in that I’m heading back down to Guelph in a mere two days and moving mid-week. I’m essentially from a known but difficult situation to a completely unknown situation with no real ability to estimate difficulty.

Fortunately, I have a number of sources from which I get regular reminders of mental health, resiliency and other such things. One email that arrived in my inbox this morning from author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. In it, she highlighted what has become known as the Stockdale paradox arising from US Navy Admiral James Stockdale’s’ account of being a POW in a North Vietnam prison camp for 8 years, from the book Good To Great by Jim Collins.

This is what Stockdale said when asked who among his fellow prisoners struggled to make it out alive:
‘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…’

The Stockdale Paradox then is this: the ability to hold two opposing but equally true things at once–faith that you will prevail in the end, while at the same time confronting the brutal facts of your current reality.

I had come across Stockdale Paradox before, but this was a timely reminder and really stuck with me. Many people who know me assume I’m an optimist–but I think a quiz on political values I took back on the day described me better as: “a devoted egalitarian with a balanced view of reality”.

What makes me seem like an optimist is my choice to hope. Several years back, I realized hope was as much of choice as a feeling. I realized that hope was as simple as looking at what is, feeling it is not what should be, and resolving that what should be will become the reality one day. That’s it.

It does not mean ignoring the present reality–indeed, one must fully understand the present reality in order to work at changing it. It also does not depend on you alone–if what is does not equate to what should be then we must trust that what should be will become true one day–near future or far, with or without us. We can, of course, to do all we can to bring what should be into the present reality, but we must also recognize that the work may not be complete in our own live times.

This may seem somewhat of a downer to many, but to me it actually brings great comfort. We can acknowledge the suck, not deny it, and we can have faith that things WILL get better without allowing our happiness to be contingent on a future not yet realize. Living in the moment, hoping and working for a better future without allowing ourselves to be controlled by our worry for the future–this is a good goal. We might not succeed, we might need to be reminded time and again, but ultimately that is what will get us through this.

As it relates to my stress over the immediate future, I am reminded that I can acknowledge my fear and uncertainty while also trusting it will all work out somehow. All I need to focus on is taking the next right step. And that is something I can do.

Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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