Admiral James Stockdale was a United States aviator whose plane was shot down in North Vietnam in 1965. He spent 7 years in a POW camp, and amazingly, survived the horrific experience. His survival depended not only on the resilience of his body, but also a very healthy mind. According to Stockdale, many prisoners tried to hold on to hopeful perspective but eventually died in large part due a broken heart. He called them optimists. Alternatively, other prisoners who succumbed were hopelessly despondent from the outset.
In his effort to survive, Stockdale tried to keep his mental state somewhere between unbridled optimism and demoralizing pessimism. He noted: “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.” Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, described this approach to very difficult and uncertain situations as the Stockdale Paradox.
Does this conundrum of suffering with an indeterminate end sound familiar?
Indeed, the Stockdale Paradox is very relevant during an ever-changing pandemic in a country divided by politics. No wonder many of us feel weighted down by the dread of the unknown and overwhelmed by the burden of our professional, family and personal responsibilities.
To not only survive but also thrive in our current situation, we should embrace the Stockdale Paradox. That is, accept the reality and uncertainty of our current predicament while also having the faith and fortitude to know that a positive outcome will eventually be realized. This attitudinal journey will not be easy. It will take personal courage and the continued support and trust of each other, especially given the uncertainty of the timeline.
We know that this will not be over until it’s over, and that things may evolve into a new normal. However, the Stockdale approach provides us a measured and logical way to help our minds to be emotionally strong and realistically hopeful. It also helps us minimize our tendency to focus on or worry about things beyond our power and control, thoughts which tend to engender fear, anxiety and despondency.
Despite entering this new year with a surging pandemic, schools debating whether to be in-person or virtual, the ever-present political chasm and the heart of winter before us, let’s all try to embrace Admiral Stockdale’s approach by being both hopeful and realistic, and focusing our efforts on things we are able to control. We have faith that we, too, will prevail in the end.
Wishing you all the best for 2022,
Alan H. Matsumoto, M.D.