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Values: The Stockdale Paradox

It can sometimes seem like the world is working to end much sooner than later, that the current times bear a greater burden than the past ever had. It can especially feel like this when there is a pandemic amuck and businesses are suffering in every way imaginable, be it from new safety guidelines, lack of workers, or simply a lack of business.

It is especially important in times like these to turn to those that have been there already. Often, you won’t find these people on the streets, but rather in the pages they left behind. Fortunately for us, Jim Stockdale left some of those pages.

He was a thinker, a high-ranking naval officer in the Vietnam War, in which he spent seven years in NVA captivity as a P.O.W., as well as a vice presidential candidate, public speaker, and philosopher. He left us with articles and speeches, sure, but he also left us with something a little bigger: The Stockdale Paradox.

For the philosophy heads out there, a paradox is an old friend. For the rest of us, a google search might suffice. But here is a simple version: a seemingly absurd statement that when explained, may very well be true.

And what was Stockdale’s? We will get to that, but first, it would be helpful to offer a little background on his experiences. As a prisoner of war, Stockdale ran the gauntlet of physical and psychological abuse. Often, his only means of communication with his peers was through a tap code that had to be learned once captured. Over the years, many of his fellows did not survive the torture and abuse, but he did.

Ultimately, what saved his life was his ability to comprehend the realism and brutality of his situation, while simultaneously balancing that realism with a steadfast belief that he would survive and return home.

That is the Stockdale Paradox. In his words, “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.”

In our time, we cannot afford to be overly optimistic. We must keep the mental fortitude to recognize the essence of the present. We are amidst a pandemic. We are economically fragile. However, we will win out – but it may take time and hardship and we can never forget that.

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