This Is When Blind Faith & Hard Facts Can Co-Exist
When we're caught in a bind (and we've been there a while) we need to find that magic spot between brutal realism and everlasting hope.
It’s not unusual, when life goes south, to want someone to tell us everything is going to be OK.
When my life hit a rough patch, that’s exactly what I wanted.
And the people I turned to were psychics.
Desperate for some kind of reassurance that things would get better, they were the only people I could think of who could give me a glimmer of hope that my life would get back on track again.
And each time they did.
I would come away after each session floating on air, filled with unbridled joy and an unshakeable belief that everything in my life would work out just fine — so much better than fine, in fact.
I became intoxicated with the drug of possibility.
And then I waited.
Impatient for life to get better, I kept expecting to see signs of its drastic improvement around every corner.
But I didn’t see any.
The bind I found myself in far outlasted the period of time I would give myself these heady injections of baseless joy.
And so my moods would go up and down like a psychotic yo-yo: excited and relieved one minute; desperate and angry the next.
It would take seeing another behaving just like me to finally get a grip on my own missteps.
A friend— like me — would also get a massive high from going to psychics and being filled with narcotic-free “hope hits” of galactic proportions.
And, like any other “hit”, the comedown was just as spectacular.
Within a week of these types of pilgrimages, I would watch as she would be left confused, deflated and despairing.
And as an observer, it was very easy to see why.
This fleeting glimpse of paradise was the part that was actually causing her more harm, arguably, than the predicament she was in.
I felt the same way. And so I stopped turning to psychics.
When Things Don't Get Better
The truth is, some things don’t ever seem to improve (note: this is being written in Covid-lockdown Stage 2) — or, at least they can take a very, very long time to.
We can always find ourselves trapped in situations which we once thought would resolve themselves quickly, only to find ourselves months — or even years — later, still there, still hoping for change, still trying to escape.
It might be a bad marriage.
It might be a shitty job.
It might be that we had to move back in with our parents because we finally left that bad marriage or quit that shitty job and now we have found a brand new place to be stuck in.
And life can suck for a very long time.
The thing is, just knowing that something isn’t working isn’t enough to make that thing change.
And blind faith that it will somehow magically get better next week, next month, or next year, isn’t likely to help either.
To survive the spirit-crushing nature of our predicaments, then, we have to throw ourselves a rope — one that is, conversely, both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.
The real lifeline comes from embracing the opposites and living both truths side by side, as James Stockdale will tell you.
The Stockdale Paradox
Relentless optimism in a situation where you don’t really have anything to be optimistic about is more than just deluded thinking.
When you are a prisoner of war, it can actually be life-threatening.
Stockdale, a naval officer at the time of the Vietnam War, had to learn this the hard way when he was held in a POW camp for seven long years.
This is an account of his time there by Jim Collins in his book, Good To Great:
"Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again."
Initially, when Collins asked Stockdale how he endured this, he replied that he “never lost faith in the end of the story”.
He “never doubted” that he would get out one day, that he “would prevail in the end” and ultimately be defined by the experience in the best way possible.
Yet, at the same time, Stockdale said that the ones who suffered the most in that camp — and even died prematurely — were in fact, the optimists.
Again from Collins' book, Good To Great:
“Oh, 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.”
A Marriage Of Opposites
The lesson, said Stockdale — and the thing that kept him going — was to hold two contrasting beliefs in his mind.
He wasn’t getting out by Christmas. But he absolutely was getting out.
The trick was not to allow his optimism to blind him to the “brutal facts” of his situation, which were just as vital to his survival during this time.
As he told Collins:
“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.”
Facing facts might not be as sexy as “you will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger” but it is vital we do so, particularly when we feel trapped.
While optimism is an essential component of psychological health; blind optimism — the kind where we think life will magically sort itself out on its own — is a dangerous state to stay in.
Just like the blissful high that comes from a visit to a tarot card reader, these kinds of states aren’t meant to last.
Eventually reality will come crashing in, regardless of whether we want to face it or not.
So balancing faith with facts, is an advisable way to navigate these times; to stay grounded — not deluded.
Aside from anything, it might just save us from a broken heart.
Find Out More ABout Radical Acceptance here
Don't Be Afraid Of Your Dark Side
There can be serious perks to being in a bad mood. The black clouds hanging over our heads do actually have silver linings.
No-one said we always have to be perky.
While there are obvious benefits to releasing negative emotions, like having a good cry, there are also quite a few advantages of being in a stinking bad mood.
Here are just a few:
From Big Think:
"A study from the University of Waterloo published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences shows that being in a bad mood can actually be a good thing. Specifically, a bad mood can boost "executive function."
In other words, it means people in a bad mood "get things done".
The story continues:
"But why is this? Negative moods promote an analytical thinking style that's very well suited to problem-solving."
We don't faff around, in other words.
(N.B. The effect is more pronounced amongst people who are used to bad moods - i.e. it doesn't distract them when a black cloud hovers over them, unlike happy campers who are not as used to low spells and so are more likely to be derailed by them.
According to social psychologist, Joseph Forgas, bad moods make us likelier to stick at things.
From The Conversation:
"Other experiments found that when happy and sad participants were asked to perform a difficult mental task, those in a bad mood tried harder and persevered more. They spent more time on the task, attempted more questions and produced more correct answers."
As Forgas adds in the same article, we are also a lot better at remembering stuff:
"In one study, a bad mood (caused by bad weather) resulted in people better remembering the details of a shop they just left. Bad mood can also improve eyewitness memories by reducing the effects of various distractions, such as irrelevant, false or misleading information."
And we are also a lot less biased, Forgas says:
"We found that bad moods also reduced gullibility and increased scepticism when evaluating urban myths and rumours, and even improved people’s ability to detect deception more accurately. People in a mild bad mood are also less likely to rely on simplistic stereotypes."
5. Lie Detection
From The New York Times (referring to a study led by Forgas):
"A 2006 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tested subjects on their ability to detect a lie. Subjects who were put in a negative mood by watching a short film about dying of cancer were far more likely to detect lies than subjects who were put in a good mood by watching a clip from a comedy show."
And finally, in undoubtedly the most important finding of all, the act of embracing our bad moods (rather than pretending we don't have them), can literally save our lives.
From the BBC (referring to a 2010 study of patients with coronary artery disease, which looked at their relationship with expressing anger):
"Over the course of the study, 20% experienced a major cardiac event and 9% percent died. Initially it looked like both anger and suppressed anger increased the likelihood of having a heart attack. But after controlling for other factors, the researchers realised anger had no impact – while suppressing it increased the chances of having a heart attack by nearly three-fold."