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
The Elixir Of Life? How Feeling In Control Impacts Our Work Lives - And Our Longevity
Feeling powerless and helpless is a key factor behind anxiety and depression. There's a cure for that.
We can frequently find ourselves in incredibly demoralizing situations.
Take the average office. For many of us, it provides little more than a delightful daily cocktail of insufficient pay, mindbogglingly repetitive tasks and stifling levels of box-ticking.
Feeling like a cog in a wheel is hard enough when this is a job to pay the bills (rather than a step up the ladder to something greater).
It can become intolerable, however, when we are perpetually undermined, given insufficient freedom to make decisions and are left feeling overworked, undervalued and underpaid.
For many of us, quitting isn’t an option, which just compounds the misery we feel. We can’t take action to rectify the situation and the feeling of helplessness takes root, with no visible remedy in sight.
It‘s’ the perfect recipe for apathy, at best. Really, why bother?
Why Agency Matters
The reason why we get dragged down so much, says Johann Hari in this Big Think video, is that we have a strong psychological need for “agency” — the sense of being in control of the direction of our lives.
Having a lack of agency is a key factor behind work-related depression and anxiety, he says, quoting the work of Australian scientist, Michael Marmot:
"If you go to work and you feel controlled - you feel you have few or limited choices - you are significantly more likely to become depressed."
So what’s the answer when we feel beaten down and we lack this sense of control over our lives?
And the answer? Not surprisingly, it is to take back control.
The Need To Take Back Control
There are many ways we can do this.
The example Hari cites in the Big Think video might seem to be a bit too much of a jump for some right now but is instructive all the same.
In the case he highlights, a husband and wife quit their jobs to run a bike shop together. The act of being responsible for it had the inadvertent effect of combating their prior feelings of depression and anxiety.
This is great, but...
While we might aspire to do that (run our own show), we can’t always change our external environment at the click of our fingers.
The key, then, is to understand how we get that feeling of being in control in our everyday life.
A 1970's psychology study in a U.S. care home might give us some clues about how to achieve that.
In the late 1970's, esteemed Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and her colleague Judith Rodin, conducted what was to become a landmark experiment in Arden House, a care home in New England.
What they did was deceptively simple but startlingly effective.
Langer and Rodin divided the residents into two groups, both of which were given plants to care for and films to watch, with a subtle variation in the parameters set around the control group.
While one group had everything done for them, the other was given the power to make decisions for themselves.
Nothing grand, they were simply given the ability to decide where and when they would receive visitors, if and when they would watch the films being shown and in what way they would care for their houseplants (how often they would water them, where they would place them in their rooms and so on).
The idea being, writes Langer in her book Counterclockwise, was to make this group feel actively engaged with the world around them — and less of a passive bystander.
The results were remarkable.
Eighteen months later, they revisited Arden House, compared the two groups and found that the control group were not only healthier, happier and more alert but twice as many of them were alive.
It raised the idea that not only is the feeling of control directly linked to happiness - it's linked to longevity, too.
What is so reassuring about this study, is that sometimes the desire to be in control of our lives can take on what feel like unreachable goals - we want to own a house, run our own business, be in a position of status. And, of course, these things might come.
But for the time in between, it is a relief to know that the things that markedly improve our happiness levels right now are the little decisions we are able to take every day - and knowing that there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of.
What We Can Do Now
Even if it is just choosing what we focus on, there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of — and they might be more vital to our long-term health and happiness than we realise.
Here are a few suggestions to get started: