The Stockdale Paradox
How lessons from America's most senior Vietnam Prisoner of War give us wisdom in this challenging time. By Darren Blaney
I want to introduce you to one of the most important people you have probably never heard of. He is a man who has lived through a lockdown far worse than anything we are experiencing. A man whose wisdom may hold a key for surviving this turbulent season. That man is James Stockdale
Stockdale was a US Navy Vice-Admiral and the most senior US military officer to be held captive in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War. In the end, he was a prisoner of war for more than seven years. He was frequently tortured during that time. Twice he had his leg broken. Yet he survived. Many others did not. Not only so but when he was finally released, he returned to the United States in remarkably good psychological health. What was the secret to his survival in such a harsh and oppressive regime?
The answer to that question has become known as The Stockdale Paradox.
Some years ago, Stockdale was interviewed about his experiences by business guru Jim Collins. When asked about his strategy for survival, Stockdale replied, "I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."
That is quite a remarkable set of statements.
Collins then asked him about which people did not make it out of the Prisoner of War Camp. "Oh, that's easy," replied Stockdale, "the optimists."
Collins was shocked. However, Stockdale explained. "The optimists... 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."
He added, "This is a very important lesson. 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."
This strange combination of faith and realism, future hope and acceptance of the present, has become known as The Stockdale Paradox.
I note three things about James Stockdale's statements. Perhaps you noticed them too as your read his words?
Firstly, his resolve to make this the defining experience of his life. He did not simply resolve to survive, or to make it through somehow. He resolved that this would become the experience that would make him as a man, not break him. Is this how you, how I, approach this current crisis?
I am reminded of the Apostle Paul in prison, writing to the Philippians. Facing the imminent possibility of death, he can rejoice. In part this is because he sees that his imprisonment has emboldened others to preach the gospel of Jesus. Further, he is able to say to them, "it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
I have always found those words, and that attitude, a challenge. Having confronted his own situation with resolve and faith he can then turn to his readers—and to us—and place the high call of Christ at our feet: "Whatever happens conduct yourself as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ."
Is this our attitude? Whatever happens will we make sure that Christ is honoured by how we conduct ourselves during this time? Have we resolved that now, more than ever, we will live lives worthy of the gospel?
Next, we note, Stockdale never lost faith in the end of the story. There is a lesson here for us. As I was praying last week, I found myself confessing to God that "it does not matter how many thousands of yesterdays have been just like today, with You tomorrow can be different." What we are going through now is not the end. It is not the last word. Yes, it is a difficult time. It is a challenging time. It is a time that may well leave its mark on our society for years to come.
However, that is all that it is, a 'time'. Like all times it will come to an end. It will pass. We must not lose our faith in how the story finishes. It finishes with the victory of Christ, with the restoration of all things to God, and with the coming of that Kingdom where God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. In the time in between the gospel will continue to spread and Jesus will build His Church.
Lastly, he held faith and realism, hope and suffering together in tension. The power is in the paradox. It is the coming together of the two elements, with each balancing the other, that gives the Stockdale Paradox its practical strength. By the grace of God, we will make it out of this, we will get through, we will reach life on the other side of the pandemic.
However, it is not likely to be any time soon. We must hold on to and live with both truths. We must allow the comfort of knowing that God is sovereign to give us strength for a challenging journey. We must not use it as an excuse to run away and hide from reality. It is not, "if God is in charge, how could He allow this to happen to me?"
It is rather, "God is in charge, therefore I know He will bring me through, and I know that He will use this for His purposes." We must learn from Abraham who, "...faced the fact that his body was as good as dead..." Yet as he did so, "...he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised."
Stockdale got to a point where he could say he would not go back and change his experience of those seven and a half years, even if he could. Would we say that about what we are going through now?
Let us resolve today that this period will be the making of our faith, not the breaking of it.
Let us resolve that whatever happens we will live these days with integrity, trusting in the benevolent sovereignty of our Heavenly Father.
Let us resolve that we will conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
He will bring us through, but we will not be out any time soon.
Darren Blaney is minister of Herne Bay Baptist Church
Images | U.S. Navy File Photo | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain
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