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 - anyone - to tell us everything is going to be OK.
But 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 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, is only a short-term solution - something that momentarily makes us feel better.
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.
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