Some years ago, I attended a panel discussion composed of various artists talking about their careers. One of the panelists was a man named David Carroll. A New Hampshire resident, David is an American naturalist, author of six books, and illustrator who had just received a MacArthur Grant after more than 30 years of painstaking work where he made barely enough money to survive. In talking about his life as an artist, he spoke words I have never forgotten: “You just hope you get a break before it breaks you.” Needless to say, it resonated.
But all of us, artists or not, have something we are struggling with, something that seems big enough to consume us, or break us, whether it’s chronic financial stress, a loved one’s mental illness or addiction, or grief. This week, while pondering this subject of what can overcome us, I thought of comments made by Admiral James Stockdale, who was tortured in a Vietnamese POW camp for seven-and-a-half years. A friend of mine mentioned Stockdale’s comments in a speech he gave several years ago, and like David Carroll’s comments, I never forgot them. I suppose my friend got them from a business book by author James Collins called Good to Great. In the book, Collins wrote about a conversation he had with Stockdale, where he asked him about his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.
I never lost faith in the end of the story, 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.
Then Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Stockdale answered:
Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. 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.
Stockdale then went on to say:
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.
Collins went on to describe this philosophy of duality as the “Stockdale Paradox.” Whatever you want to call it, I know that if I learn this lesson — that if I live Stockdale’s paradox — my life will be much richer and I will be much stronger.
Wishing you a very happy Fourth of July!
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