12 years ago, I wrote an article for this HEN newsletter entitled “The Brutal Facts.” That article and its story came back to me recently when I was attending an early morning Kundalini class by Zoom. As part of the Kundalini and Zoom experience, we were invited to “tea” after class, and put into Zoom “chat rooms” to talk with a few others in the class.
I shared the story from my article as a way that has helped me make sense of the COVID realities we are all facing at the moment. There was a calming reaction to it.
So, I went back to the article and rewrote it all for us – for the times. I hope it has the same kind of effect on you. And, if you like that kind of feeling, check out the White Raven Collective, as you can do their classes from anywhere!
Admiral James Stockdale was an American naval officer who was also the highest ranking military officer to be held as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and one of the longest to be held in captivity. For nearly 8 years, he was routinely tortured brutally, had no prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.
When his captivity finally ended, he had wounds that included a broken back and shoulders pulled out of his sockets. He documents his experiences in his memoir: In Love and War.
How did Stockdale deal with being imprisoned for that long and in those conditions – especially since he wouldn’t have known when his captivity would end (sound familiar?). As Jim Collins documents in his book Good to Great, Stockdale said:
“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.”
Collins then asked: “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Stockdale said. “The optimists.” Collins couldn’t understand this answer, as he thought Stockdale had just told him that it was an optimistic attitude that kept him sane through his harshest experiences. Stockdale clarified:
“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.”
Collins named this conundrum the “Stockdale Paradox.”
It offers us a path through the present intensities. We musn’t ignore the “brutal facts” of what is happening in our world, in our communities, in our lives at this time. Deal with them. Figure out ways to engage with the hardship. At the same time, keep one part of you reserved for your vision and the belief that we will come through.
Stockdale led the POWs’ culture of defiance, finding ways to communicate and govern prisoner behavior that gave them all hope. Let’s leave him with the last words:
“Our very fiber and sinew were the only weapons at our disposal. Each man’s values from his own private sources provided the strength enabling him to maintain his sense of purpose and dedication. They placed unity above self. Self-indulgence was a luxury that could not be afforded.”
How can you rise up a better person?
What does a better tomorrow look like to you?
Who do you want to grow into as a result of this experience?