The Stockdale Paradox

In 1965, Admiral Jim Stockdale's plane was shot down in North Vietnam and he was a POW until 1973.  Tortured over 20 times in that span, he was without prisoner rights, a release date, nor certainty that he would see his family again.  The Admiral faced his enemy valiantly, using a razor and stool to disfigure himself so he couldn't be used as TV propaganda for the Vietnamese's alleged well treated POWs.  He instituted rules that helped deal with the system of torture, such as after 'x' minutes, a soldier can give certain information, which gave each POW milestones for survival while being tortured.  He rallied his troops, creating an elaborate communication system of taps to lessen the effects of isolation.  On his 3rd anniversary of his plane being shot down, the POWs tapped out "We love you" using mops while cleaning the central yard (Collins, 2001).  The question is simple: how did he survive?

Fist I want to start with admiration for my clients and the clients of my colleagues who have survived.  They have withstood traumatic events, painful histories and loneliness (the latter being the worst part).  Yet the resiliency and mental toughness to pursue therapy, group work and community within their lives is inspiring.  Many clients have had to face the brutal consequences of their addiction, then doing everything in their power to find sobriety and connection.  There is something in the human spirit that might try to give up, but the inclination towards survival and thriving is so strong that we know there is a seed.  And a seed means there can be life.

So how did Stockdale survive?  In an interview with Jim Collins (2001), the Admiral was asked who didn't survive.  "That's easy," he said."  "The optimists.  The ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.'  Then Christmas would come and go.  Then they'd say 'We're going to be out by Easter.'  And Easter would come and go.  'We're going to be out by Thanksgiving.'  It would come and go.  Then they'd die of a broken heart."  Isn't optimism good?  Aren't we suppose to have hope?  Yes.  But the Admiral had a sense of reality.  The optimists had faith, but were in denial of the reality of their situation, i.e. the brutal facts.  This ignoring and minimizing comes out in depression, anxiety and a shut down of part of our nervous system (Katehakis, 2016).  It can lead to despair.  Thus, when applied, the Stockdale Paradox means facing the brutal facts of your situation, no matter what they are, and retaining faith that you will prevail at the end, no matter the circumstances.

This psychological duality (Collins, 2001) is hard to tolerate.  How does one hold parallel the facts of childhood sexual abuse and believing that peace, joy and love will come?  How does one hold the insecurity of unemployment with knowledge that one will land a job?  How does one face the struggle of parenting a difficult child while loving him/her through it with unwavering faith that the child will heal?  These are complex questions with no simple answer.  But I have learned a lot from my 4 year old daughter and the TV cartoon Daniel Tiger.  He has a saying, "Sometimes we have two feelings at the same time and that's ok."  In childlike surrender, have you given yourself permission to cry and be angry?  Have you felt hurt and allowed the peace and hope to surface after the tears?  There is something deeply fulfilling in tolerating paradoxes in life.  

In the therapy office, it seems that most clients arrive knowing the brutal facts.  This is not the rule, but a trend I see.  So I'd like to help foster the theological virtue of faith and hope.  Jesus introduces several paradoxes in the Gospels.  One is "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Mt. 16:25).  Surrendering what we want 'fixed' in our life is so hard, but the antidote to control.  There is a Jesuit form of prayer with the acronym ARRR.  This stands for Accept, Receive, Relate and Respond.  In the practical, it means to accept the feeling/desire/situation at hand, receive it into your heart, relate it to God (tell Him about it), and allow Him to respond through the silence or scripture or imagery the Holy Spirit wants to spark in one's soul.  Jesus will answer, but the opened door or the finding might be different than what we are looking for.  

On the human formation side, hope has a psychological component.  First one needs to have a goal.  With this goal in mind, one must have a plan B to accomplish that goal, or a plan C, D or E.  This is in case plan A doesn't work.  Third, one must have agency (Brown, 2013).  A secular term indeed, however Jesus wants us to have confidence in ourselves, that we can attain all things through Him and with Him.  Through this belief in oneself, the goal will be attained, through unwavering faith even if the brutal facts are dark and overwhelming.  Admiral Jim had a goal of reuniting with his family.  He went through several means to accomplish that plan and he believed in the God given capabilities with which he was gifted to carry out that plan.  You have what it takes to heal and God will continue to unveil layers of your heart to 'accept the things you cannot change and the courage to change the things you can.' 

Peace, Michael Ciaccio MS, LPC, SATP

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