New Zealand Law Society - Can we apply the Stockdale Paradox to today’s crisis?

Can we apply the Stockdale Paradox to today’s crisis?

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By Paul Sills


Niels Bohr the Danish physicist and quantum theorist (Nobel Prize in physics in 1922) said “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” (Ruth Moore, Niels Bohr: The Man, His Science and the World They Changed, 1966, page 196).

The Oxford Dictionary defines a paradox as: “A statement or proposition which on the face of it seems self-contradictory, absurd, or at variance with common sense, though, on investigation or when explained, it may prove to be well-founded (or, according to some, though it is essentially true).”

Paradoxes are everywhere – life itself is a paradox, as quantum mechanics has shown us. Light is a great example and an excellent metaphor for life. Light behaves like a wave and particle – sometimes it passes through glass, sometimes it bounces off. The world of conflict resolution is perhaps unsurprisingly full of paradoxes. We want participants in a mediation to remain calm as they deal with frustration over the pace of progress or feelings of being overwhelmed by direct confrontation with the other party.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting financial crisis brings the Stockdale Paradox to our (closed, for now) doors, together with some hope of making progress.

Admiral Jim Stockdale

Admiral Jim Stockdale gained prominence when he was interviewed by Jim Collins for his book Good to Great (Random House, 2001). Stockdale had been the highest-ranking United States military officer held at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for 7½ years between 1965 and 1973. During this time, Stockdale was tortured over 20 times and had no idea if or when he would be released or see his family again.

Stockdale refused to give in to his situation or his captors. Instead he did everything he could to increase the number of prisoners who would survive their own ordeal. He hid intelligence information in letters that he wrote to his wife and put in place rules amongst the prisoners for how to deal with torture and when to reveal certain information at various stages of the torture process. He also created a communication system so that the prisoners could stay in contact, even when they were in solitary confinement.

At one stage, Stockdale beat and cut himself so that he was disfigured and could not be used for propaganda.

So how could Stockdale survive longer than most, putting his life at risk over and over to spirit out essential information and to keep his fellow prisoners focused on staying alive?

The Stockdale Paradox

Stockdale summed it up when he said: “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.”

As Stockdale said in his interview with Jim Collins, it was those who had a false sense of optimism that didn’t make it through. The ones who thought they would be out by Christmas or Easter “died of a broken heart” when Christmas or Easter came and went.

Viktor Frankl, psychotherapist and holocaust survivor, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston Press, 2006) that prisoners within Nazi concentration camps usually died around Christmas time. He believed that they had such strong hopes they would be out by Christmas that they simply died of hopelessness when that didn’t turn out to be true.

The Stockdale paradox contains both a pessimistic (realistic) and optimistic component. That you must retain faith that you will prevail regardless of the difficulties is optimistic. This can serve all of us in the current crisis that we face. This faith can be applied to any part of our life at any time. Whether it is the health risks associated with the virus, losing our job during the periods of high unemployment that are likely to follow or struggling to keep your business open – faith that you will prevail in the long-term is essential.

However, we must all equally confront the brutal facts of our current reality – and for many of us the facts are indeed brutal. This is the pessimistic side of the paradox – but I prefer to think of it in terms of being realistic. It is essential because we need a starting point – a reference point from where we can start our journey to the point where we will have prevailed. To be of use to us, any starting point needs a solid foundation and it needs to be based in our current reality – however bad that may seem and however much we do not want to confront the detail. But we need to. We cannot lie or deceive ourselves as to how bad things are at the moment and we need to be brutally honest – to ourselves and to others.

A realist and an optimist

What gives the Stockdale Paradox its strength is that Stockdale was both a realist and an optimist at the same time. That is the paradox. We need to be optimistic about the future while also being realistic about the present.

Optimism takes us forward to a better future. Realism grounds us in the current situation and makes us focus on what lies ahead of us. It helps us to prepare and face whatever obstacles we will be confronted with.

Stockdale became a professor of Stoicism later in life and said this to his students at Stanford University: “The optimist that says everything will be alright and does nothing is the same as the pessimist that says nothing will be alright and gives up.”

It was the teachings of the Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) that prepared Stockdale for his ordeal. As he was parachuting into enemy territory having been shot down, he said to himself that he was entering the world of Epictetus.

Epictetus was born a slave and in early life became crippled – possibly from a beating from his master. Once freed from slavery he became one of Rome’s greatest Stoic philosophers. He was one of the original Stoic teachers and many of his lessons were recorded by a diligent student. He told his classes that they lived in an uncertain and hostile world (sound familiar?) but that they alone were responsible for their happiness – as each of them was free to choose and to judge.

As Epictetus told his students – the keys to this paradox, and the key to having power over our intentions and our attitude was:

“Even in a world that feels out of control, take responsibility for something.”

In the midst of pain, suffering and uncertainty, Stockdale found ways to exercise responsibility during 7½ years as a prisoner of war. He lost control of many things – freedom of movement, the food he ate and the integrity of his body. Yet he still believed that he held more power over his suffering than his captors did. He never lost faith.

What we can do

We all need to ask ourselves during this difficult time “What can I take responsibility for?”

To survive our current situation and endure any hardship that may follow, we must focus on two things:

  1. We must maintain a clear focus on our reality – no matter how awful and no matter how harsh. Do not sugarcoat the facts. Resilient people do not lie to themselves or others – they face the facts squarely, whatever they may be.
  2. The paradoxical part is that, at the very same time, we must find a way to hold on to hope. Faith at times like this is essential.

Paul Sills is an Auckland barrister and mediator. He specialises in commercial and civil litigation and is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member.

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