“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never. In nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” …Winston Churchill
I had the opportunity recently to speak with Bernie Mayer. Mayer is a Professor of Dispute Resolution at Creighton University, an author of multiple books and a leader in the field of conflict engagement.
In the course of our conversation, I mentioned my ongoing struggle with the tremendous environmental challenges facing our species at this time: overpopulation, climate change, the sixth extinction. He spoke eloquently about a concept that helped me greatly as he spoke about it. I’ve outline it below – it’s from his latest book The Conflict Paradox, Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes.
In response to my hand-wringing, he spoke about one of the paradoxes he outlines in his book: the paradox of Optimism and Realism. He talked about how if you are solely “optimistic” in the face of suffering, you are not credible. If you are realistic, you can be paralyzed into inaction by your own hopelessness. The hopelessness, he says, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Optimism gives us the strength to believe that we can do something – that we can and should take action, because our efforts matter. Realism allows us to face the “brutal facts” such that we take all the information into account as we move forward. These are “co-dependent” variables – not extremes on an axis.
This also reminded me of the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking American military officer to be held as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He was held for almost 8 years in horrendous conditions, full of torture both physical and mental. When asked how he dealt with his imprisonment and bleak future, 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.”
When asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale said: “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.”
He then said, “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.”
Thank you Mayer for renewing my faith and for reminding me of another paradox I’d come across years before. I hope you too find yourself replenished with this spirit of embracing what truly is – while holding a vision of a better tomorrow for all our children, grandchildren and seven generations forward.