The Stockdale Paradox

Dear Willow,

It’s been a doozy of a week in our country, and in the background, COVID grinds on.

Some days, it feels like nothing has changed in ages and nothing ever will.

The news of the vaccine was wonderful for a moment, and then reminded me of how far we have to go. According to estimates in The New York Times, there are 287 million people ahead of me to get the vaccine. And there should be, no question. I work remotely, my social pod is very small, I’m young-ish, and I’m in good health. I should be one of the last people to get the vaccine.

Oh, but that doesn’t stop me from being eager for it. I long for it like the first warm day of Spring, or a sunny morning after 14 straight days of gloom and rain.

Considering we’ve only managed to vaccinate 5 million Americans so far…it’s going to be a minute. If the current pace doesn’t pick up, I’ll be getting the vaccine sometime in late 2025, in which case I definitely need to make some upgrades to the homefront (#hibernesting).

Enduring the day-to-day might have been easier before there was hope. Putting one foot in front of the other, doing what needed to be done without too much thought to the future, that made it bearable.

You’ve heard of the Stockdale Paradox?

James Stockdale was held in a POW camp for seven years during the Vietnam War. He was interviewed by leadership guru Jim Collins about the experience, and when he was asked about the prisoners who didn’t survive, he answered: “The optimists. 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.”

Of course, there’s no comparison between my experience of the past ten months – which have left me relatively unscathed, knock on wood – to seven years in a Vietnamese war prison. But I can see his point.

Hope in a fixed end is heartbreaking.

What happens to the spirit when the vaccine rollout takes longer than expected? What happens when saboteurs destroy previous vials? What happens when even some medical professionals are falling prey to conspiracy theories?

The Stockdale quote doesn’t end with the broken heart. He goes on, “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.”


This feels right.

This is a hope that will keep me moving, that won’t grind me down with constant disappointment, even if I can’t get the vaccine for another year (0r more).

For now, the COVID reality is still pretty brutal. Over 21 million cases. More than 350,000 deaths. No coherent national response. States attempting to cobble together vaccine distribution logistics with limited resources. One in four doctors facing harassment for trying to spread sound, useful information about COVID and other health issues. Medical professionals refusing to take the vaccine, even when offered. (Over the holidays, I heard a secondhand account of a retired nurse who believes the vaccine may contain a government microchip and/or could be the Mark of the Beast from the Book of Revelations in the Bible. Possibly exaggerated in the telling, but probably not by much.)

Despite this grim present, I have faith in a future – eventually, someday – where I am able to visit my family without quarantining for two weeks first. Where I get to see my friends’ entire smiles, not just their eyes crinkled behind their masks. Where I will be able to be in a house full of people, laughing and chatting and celebrating, and in real life, not in an anxiety dream where I’m panicking because something doesn’t feel right and, oh god, no one is wearing a mask.

That reality is not here yet.

But it will be.

I have faith.


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