Why have some people managed the uncertainty of the Pandemic, while others have really struggled? In this article I will share an eye-opening formula for resilience and show how a healthy balance of vulnerability and hope can get you through uncertain times, like say, a Pandemic. This is all encompassed in an idea known as “The Stockdale Paradox”.
What is the Stockdale Paradox?
James Stockdale, a former prisoner of war, is no stranger to hard times. He was held prisoner for seven long and torturous years during the Vietnam War. So how did he manage it all? He attributes his survival to his ability to blend hard pragmatism with an unwavering hope for the future. In other words by giving himself a serious reality check that he didn’t know how or when he would be free… he found hope. This interesting idea is what is now known as the Stockdale Paradox. The main gist of the concept is that you need to balance realism with optimism. He had faith that he didn’t know the end of the story. In other words, he tolerated the uncertainty of the situation and that was precisely the thing that allowed him to survive. So, the Stockdale Paradox shows that staying in uncertainty allows for managing the unknown. That’s a bit of a head-scratcher, right?
Why is it a paradox?
A paradox refers to any idea that (at first) seems absurd or contradictory, but once carefully thought through, actually makes sense. The Stockdale Paradox at first doesn’t make sense at all because, how can thinking about the worst, actually empower us to be stronger? Well consider this: In an interview, Stockwell explained that the people in the prisoner of war camp who held a false sense of optimism were the ones who didn’t survive. He explains how they would tell themselves “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And then 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. So denial of reality doesn’t really help us. What does help, however, is preparing your mind for the idea that we simply don’t know. This is where the paradox comes in: Because we just don’t know, there now exists an opportunity for ALL outcomes…including great ones. This is where hope lies. And where there is hope there is resilience. The paradox is that once you accept what you can’t control or understand, you suddenly create the opportunity for hope.
How does this relate to the Pandemic?
I’ll explain with a personal example: When Lockdown was announced in April, I made all sorts of deals in my head about how long this would last. I considered myself pragmatic when I assumed that this would all be over by the end of June. This was the imaginary finish line that I created in my mind. For the first two months of Lockdown, I found that I was mostly ‘so fine’ and our household was filled with family game-nights, dance-offs and lots and lots of crafts. I was okay until the 30th of June rolled around (my self-imposed deadline) and alas, on the 1st of July, here we were still knee-deep in Lockdown and I suddenly felt very, very tired. I fell prey to the prisoners’ Christmas wish and the moment my fantasy failed, my energy began to waver. You see, when you can’t face reality, then every subsequent disappointment wears us down.
Where else is the Stockdale Paradox relevant in our lives?
Throughout our lives we have to face reality: Lost loved ones, the end of relationships and jobs, the choices of others, illness… pick one! We often try and deny the truth about tough stuff in our own lives. At the same time though, we can actually be quite good at helping our kids face reality. For example, let’s say your kid is suffering from toothache and will need a filling. Instead of telling your child there is nothing to worry about, you rather prepare them for the tough scenario that lies ahead: You explain that there will be an injection and they will probably feel scared. But you don’t hide the truth from them. Instead you help them face reality and this prepares them for the unknown.
So the same logic should also be applied to our worries during Lockdown. While the virus is waning, we still have some toothache ahead – politically and economically. We need to know and face the discomfort. Remember that knowing this doesn’t mean that things can’t get better down the line. In fact, once we face the uncertain reality, we can then enjoy some resilience in the face of all possible outcomes.
So aren’t we allowed to dream?
Of course we are! A healthy dose of fantasy is where ideas are born and tough days are managed. As long as we always hold in mind that as humans we constantly strive to understand and make sense of things, but often our ideas and predictions are wrong.
The bottom line
Getting in touch with reality allows for a healthy mix of hope and vulnerability and is just the thing we need to get us through this year and beyond. As Brené Brown so aptly put it, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” And I would add, it’s the thing that prepares us for the worst, the best and everything in between.