The Stockdale Paradox is named after Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale spent eight years as a POW in Vietnam. During his imprisonment between 1965 and 1973, he was tortured over 20 times. However, he survived – and helped others survive – by holding fast to gritty faith. When Stockdale was interviewed by renowned author Jim Collins, he asked Stockdale a simple question:
“Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh,” Stockdale quickly replied, “that’s easy. The optimists.” Stockdale went on to explain that optimists believed they’d be out by Christmas but then Christmas would come and go. So they would set a new date… and then another… and then another. But each date slowly came and went without rescue. “They died of a broken heart. 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.”
Do you see the paradox? How do we accept the brutal truths facing us while retaining faith that we will ultimately prevail?
The first thing any of us must do, regardless of the circumstances facing me or you, is define faith. Thankfully, the Bible does this beautifully. Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. In other words, by definition, to have faith is to believe something that is not yet visible or in practice. In the Stockdale Paradox, that invisible belief is the unshakeable conviction of prevailing.
So, we find ourselves sorting through this word prevail. We can’t have faith in something if we don’t understand what it is. Merriam-Webster defines prevail as gaining ascendancy through strength or superiority and then lists triumph as a synonym. My natural question becomes, How do I triumph in this season. And here is where I believe we get into trouble.
Remember what Stockdale said about the other prisoners who didn’t make it? They, too, believed they would prevail. In fact, they were so confident of it they were labeled optimists. If that’s not telling of someone who believes it will get better – that they will triumph – then I don’t know what is! But it didn’t work for them because they wrongly defined prevailing. Their faith rested in prevailing by Christmas, by Easter, by a birthday, etc. So, when those dates came and went and the substance of their faith appeared counterfeit, what was left? A broken heart.
Our family cannot define prevailing in this season as a successful reunification with Asher. And we certainly cannot assume it means a successful reunification by a certain date. This thinking has gotten me in more trouble than I care to admit.
However, I can (and now DO) define prevail as maintaining a confidence that regardless of what befalls our relationship with Asher, God is still good, still capable, still holy, and still in the business of working miracles – even when so few of those truths appear to be working in our situation.
But there is a second part to the Stockdale Paradox. It is maintaining faith in prevailing while also acknowledging, “the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” I think it is safe to say it is easier to believe you will prevail when a signed order to release you is recognized by the international community and your captors than when you are undergoing torture without anything or one stopping it. But it is the very act of recognizing your present circumstances that lend an unshakeable foundation to your resolve.
I am not relying upon a fantasy to keep my eyes fixed on an ultimate prize.
For now, that means I will sit in the gloom and rain but watch for the horizon to burst forth in sunshine.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.