Our current reality doesn’t always match up with what we’d like it to be. We all have dreams and desires. Some might dream of finding a partner, having kids, or landing a certain job. Then others simply face unexpected circumstances. Some people may be facing physical struggles like my personal struggle with disease. I’ve been diagnosed with a rare degenerative eye disease, but I don’t know how much of my vision will be lost or how quickly it might progress. At a recent retreat I helped facilitate, several people shared heartfelt experiences about their deepest desires and the fear that they may never be realized. How do we come to terms with that? There’s an art to living with uncertainty: that is to acknowledge the truth about your deepest desire, to not skirt around that truth pretending it’s not something you want with all your heart, and then also to acknowledge the reality of your current situation, to find whatever it is you can do to keep moving forward despite your fear that the outcome you dream of might not be realized. This is heart-wrenching work.
I was listening to an interview with Brene’ Brown about her new book, Daring to Lead. During her interview, she reminded me of a story I’d heard before about General Stockdale. He survived being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was held for 8 years and tortured at least 22 times during his imprisonment. *He said the optimists were the ones least likely to survive. Stockdale explained, “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.” The optimists failed to confront the reality of their situation. In contrast, he claims to have survived because of his faith: “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” He goes on to explain that, “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 concept is now known as the Stockdale Paradox: holding onto the faith that you will prevail in the end and at the same time confronting your reality, understanding what is within your control and what is not. It’s akin to the oft used phrase: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” except hope is not the same thing as faith. Brene’ Brown refers to this important lesson as “gritty faith and gritty facts”.
It’s amazing to see what is born out of traumatic and painful situations; sometimes a diamond is produced from the extreme pressure. I have gone through a few cycles of dealing with painful situations, none quite as extreme as his particular one, but I recognize the mental process, the questions that arise when you feel trapped by pain. Your beliefs are tested. As I cycle through this new one, his words are ringing true. I have spent years examining the faith piece of this paradox. I’ve shed weak versions of faith that just couldn’t cut it. Faith is not simple optimism. It’s not just hoping that things will work out. I’ve also spent years contemplating the facing your reality piece of this paradox, understanding what is within your control and what is not. Finding what it is you can do in a given situation, no matter how small or insignificant it feels, and doing it. Now that I’m circling back around, I’m realizing you can’t only focus on one of these aspects, you must hold on to both. I am reminded that yes, you have to face the reality of the situation head on, but don’t lose your faith that you will ultimately prevail in the end. It’s choosing to believe that the current situation will not defeat your spirit. You choose to believe that you will come out stronger in the end.
Have faith my friend, and keep moving forward to face the challenge of today.
*General Stockdale’s quotes are from the book by James C. Collins called Good to Great.