This is what is on my mind this morning…the “Stockdale Paradox”. Before I start, please know that I am not looking for agreement or argument. I am thinking out loud in this post. Contemplating this concept. NOT A COMPARISON. As a result, I often ramble. And sometime, my point gets lost. My grammar get sloppy, my paragraphs get confusing. But, I get impatient and want to publish. Haha. My apologies in advance……. Hey, just go with it!!
Have you ever heard of the Stockdale Paradox? I heard of it this week by accident while browsing on the Internet. I wanted to acknowledge the graduation class of 2020 by posting my picture at that wonderful time in my life. That is the best I can do. No insult. Just a way of saying, I am thinking about all of you and your memorial experience, such as it is. Thus, I was looking in my Yearbook for a graduation picture of me in 1955, and pow! I remembered so many things.
One thing that hit me like a ton of bricks – It all started early in my married life when I heard that a classmate of mine in high school, a guy named Douglas (Doug) Patterson, had killed himself. What?????? Doug Patterson???? Yes! He took off all of his clothes, got into the bathtub, standing up, and shot himself in the head (not wanting to make a mess for his wife Nancy and family). That was the story I was told. I was horrified. He was such a gentle, wonderful, likeable guy. What happened???? Then, I got bits and pieces of the back story (as only people in the South can tell it – with dramatic everything.) Who knows what was actually true! Anyway, he had graduated from Med School, had become a practicing physician, had gone to Viet Nam as a doctor, had experienced terrible things, had never gotten beyond what happened to him in Viet Nam, and subsequently had killed himself because he could not live with his mental torment. Not a lot of days go by that I don’t think of Doug Patterson, in one way or another.
I can truly call Doug a “friend”. I was always dating and concerned with boys, but Doug was just a good friend. A buddy. I didn’t have a lot of buddies. And, he was special. Always had a smile and an understanding comment of some kind. We were both usually class officers of one kind or another. Our Senior year, we were voted “Best All Around” in the Yearbook.
So, we worked together on class committees. Plus, we were in the same class from grammar school through High School graduation, after which I went off to the University of Wisconsin and he went to Med School. Our pathways separated. Then I heard the news.
Now, let me add that I do not know a lot about the Viet Nam War. During that time, my life was in a mess, so I did not pay attention. My bad! So, when I read Nelson DeMille’s book, “Up Country”, I could not put it down. And, the whole time, I was there, alongside Doug Patterson. I have always been concerned with John McCain’s story and Doug Patterson. And, now, during this Pandemic, for some reason, Doug Patterson has been on my mind. Then, this week, the Stockdale Paradox came across my path. Let me explain…
James Bond Stockdale was born December 23, 1923. He was 14 when I was born. During his lifetime, he was a United States Navy vice admiral and aviator. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years in the Hanoi Hilton. This is what happened.
The Viet Nam War: Since there was no declaration of the war, exact dates are sketchy. It was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. North Vietnamese accepted a cease fire. But as U.S. troops departed Vietnam, Vietnamese military officials continued plotting to overtake South Vietnam. How did the U.S. get involved? President John F. Kennedy sent troops to defend South Vietnam. I don’t know what year. Congress never declared war, but years later passed the Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to use force against North Vietnam.
For the U.S., it lasted until April 30, 1975, which is roughly 20 years, or 19 years, 180 days to be precise, when President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Stockdale had led aerial attacks from the carrier USSTiconderoga (CVA-14) during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. Then, on his next deployment, while Commander of Carrier Air Wing Sixteen aboard the carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34), his A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down in North Vietnam on September 9, 1965. He was 42 years old, at that time. He survived. And went on to serve as President of the Naval War College from October 1977 until he retired from the Navy in 1979.
As Vice Admiral, Stockdale became the President of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. We Southerners all are very proud of The Citadel. Stockdale held this position from 1979 to 1980. (For you political rookies) Stockdale was a candidate for Vice President of the United States in the 1992 presidential election, on Ross Perot’s independent ticket.
That is who he was. Now, let me get to the reason for this Post.
I am in a small Studio in Paris in “lockdown” during a Pandemic at the age of 83. I have problems with both of my knees and walk with a cane. Otherwise, I am in good health. My family of origin is dead, and my kids are elsewhere – physically and mentally. I have wanted to move to France, especially Paris, since I was at the University of Wisconsin in 1955. I don’t have time to lose.
James Stockdale was definitely in a worse situation while he was being tortured in a Viet Nam prison camp during an unpopular “war”. It is even ludicrous that I am comparing my situation to his. But I do and I am. How do I make the best of this? I really hate this Studio. Yet, I should be happy I am here. I am not happy. SO, I need a perspective that works for me. This may be it!
I don’t want an “optimistic” prospective. That is not working for me. I am thinking a lot about the “Stockdale Paradox”. The main gist of the idea is that I need to balance optimism with realism. Paradoxes are best understood through experience. During the seven years that Stockdale was held prisoner, he was repeatedly tortured without a reason to believe he’d make it out alive. So, he found a way to stay alive by embracing the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism. Well, that doesn’t sound so great. It sounds like common sense. NO. On the contrary, it means that I can never afford to lose the most brutal facts of my current reality (whatever they may be).
Stockdale explained this idea as the following: “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.” I am in a foreign country, foreign language, handicapped, elderly, in a pandemic/plague, female, caged, retired, financially dependent, etc. That combined at the same time with “I will prevail in the end.” Thus, the paradox. The ability to acknowledge my situation and balance optimism with realism comes from an understanding of the Stockdale Paradox. This contradictory way of thinking was the strength that led James through those trying years. Such paradoxical thinking has been one of the defining philosophies for great leaders making it through hardship and reaching their goals.
Whether it’s weathering through a torturous imprisonment in a POW camp or going through my own trials and tribulations, the Stockdale Paradox has merit as a way of thinking and acting for any trying times in a person’s life. I consider this a trying time in my life. I am in a situation of my own making, and I did not prepare for the unexpected – a pandemic!! Few of us did. Expecting the best while preparing for the worst – even though the worst is worse than my worst!!
So, I have asked and answered the question – what are my wildest dreams at this point in my life? I know. I want things to workout for myself. I want to be successful, happy, and have achieved something no matter how trivial or personal it may be. We all do.
I know enough about the human brain to know that it is important to visualize what I want. But I am just skeptical enough to know that making that happen is not just going to come by positive visualization. That’s all well and good, and it makes me feel nice. On the contrary, also confronting the entire brevity of my situation (my lifetime) is instrumental for success. There’s a bit of positive visualization in there, but it needs to be counterbalanced with the thought that I can utterly fail and to put it frankly – my current existence might be absolutely miserable and hopeless. But I must not lose faith, my wildest dreams just might come true. . . hence the paradox.It’s not about choosing which side to take, but instead learning to embrace both feelings in opposition to one another and realize they’re both necessary and interconnected.
This duality helps to guard against the onslaught of disappointments that will hit me in the process. Optimism may drive innovation, but that needs to be put in check to help ensure that I am still on this plane of reality and not bumbling naively into something that can’t happen. It helps me to keep myself grounded, but also entertain the idea of being incredibly successful in whatever pursuit I am after. The Stockdale Paradox can help me assess a current situation and plan accordingly to tackle the challenges I will come across. It enforces both the idea that I can be positive and believe I will overcome all difficulties while at the same time I am confronting the most brutal facts of my current situation. The latter is what turns people off, because it can be misconstrued as negative or overly pessimistic.
In some strange way, this makes a lot of sense to me. I realize that I have a lot of things that seem to be going wrong and I can walk out the door, get a disease, and die, like I watched Steve do, and yet, I may prevail and get a lovely home and have a loving companion and make money and walk and wear pretty shoes, and shop for Armani clothes, and speak fluent French and act in a film and whatever else exists in my wildest dreams. So can you. That thought makes me happy. Stockdale died in 2005. He was 82 when he died. I just turned 83. And, I am going to think about my wildest dreams while I confront this miserable plague in this tiny Studio that feels like a cage!! What happened to those kids who were put in cages. Are they still there? The cruelty of those actions are beyond cruel. And, I have a list of people to whom I want to say, “I told you so.” Ugh. And, they still support their positions. Double ugh. The reality that they won’t face is very ugly. But, meanwhile, back to my wildest dreams……..
Meanwhile, please support Jayspeak. I know, I know. Why? Why not? Even a little helps. Thanks in advance.
Gainesville High School, Class of 1955, Gainesville, Georgia
3 thoughts on “THE STOCKDALE PARADOX”
How very strange life is. The moment I became ‘enclosed,’ I saw myself as McCain, who when released the first time, opted to remain with his men until all were released together. Yes! There was incredible discomfort, but with great discipline, he managed to exit that life, and to find new challenges and successes beyond his wildest imaginings.
I was raised in a Navy family; to place service first beyond whimsy; and to never yield to failure.
Though I am enclosed at this time, I know that this too shall pass, as you do, Jay; and there will be surprises, both good and bad, in my and your future.
Thanks for your very candid appraisal of a most confusing time.
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Debby, you have probably lived a good portion of your life, living this way, especially now. But, you need to embrace both sides at the same time. I have not been doing that. AND, you need to imagine what you would dream of having, not being realistic about it. Wildest dreams. I have not been doing that. I kept being realistic about my dreams. Just suggestions…… Sending love. Glad you like the post. So do I. It is important to me. I hope people read it. AND understand it.
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What a great post! I wonder if I’ve been living by the Stockdale paradox ever since Bob had his stroke. Hmmm…
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