The Stockdale Paradox

It’s not a secret that I think very highly of heroic women and men. One of my favorite posts is Medals and Goodness, about medals, virtue, and evil. From time to time I read tales of Carnegie Hero Medal award winners. And every American should read every citation of new Medal of Honor recipients. I might suggest Michael Murphy, whose story appeared in the New York Times. Let’s look at part of the official citation.

On 28 June 2005, operating in an extremely rugged enemy-controlled area, Lieutenant Murphy’s team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers, who revealed their position to Taliban fighters. As a result, between 30 and 40 enemy fighters besieged his four member team. Demonstrating exceptional resolve, Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force. The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team. Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom.

Another such recipient is James Stockdale, perhaps most famous for his terrible performance in the 1992 Vice Presidential debate. That’s a shame, because his story is much better than what he showed that one night, against professional politicians with less than two weeks’ notice. Let’s summarize Stockdale’s courage:

He was held as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo prison for the next seven years. Locked in leg irons in a bath stall, he was routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, Stockdale beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. He told them in no uncertain terms that they would never use him. When Stockdale heard that other prisoners were dying under the torture, he slit his wrists and told them that he preferred death to submission.


After his return from captivity, Admiral Stockdale became a leader, author of four books, and philosopher. You might consider his writings at the Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. The big lesson here is about how he survived the years in Vietnam, a terrible situation. It’s much worse than anyplace I’ve been, or expect to be. It was a brutal place. He described his philosophy to Jim Collins in the book Good to Great. The story, not long and well worth reading, is quoted on Mr. Collins’ website. Mr. Stockdale said that the optimists never made it out of the POW camps. “They died of a broken heart.” We come to the most important quote, the Stockdale Paradox.

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.

Ever since I’ve read that quote, I’ve been struck by its importance. Like most people, I’ve been in difficult, troubling situations. The most recurrent was biochemical depression pain; another was a messy Church situation; there is at least one I don’t talk about out of respect for others.

It’s taken a long time to understand the Stockdale Paradox. It’s manmade, so it’s not as tough as the Holy Trinity, but it’s not easy. It’s both passion and realism, examining both Happily Ever After and Homelessness in America, holding simultaneously hope and logic. What a pair, faith and discipline. Both are not simple. Faith requires believing in what can be, but is not; Discipline requires ignoring what can be, focusing on what is.

Neither of the two parts is difficult to understand, and most people can handle one or the other. Both at the same time, however, is the tricky part. In my struggles, I had to bifurcate my thoughts, almost, dividing them into branches. I built detachment into my thoughts. I got better, and then could combine the future and the present. Well, eventually I got there, mostly. There are still times where my mind can bounce quickly, from the concept of future joy to the pain of a current problem. It’s still a little strange that I can laugh and be happy, then shift to tears within a minute, then come back to happiness in under five. The control is not yet total.

For me, when I fail I generally lose the light of faith, surrounded by the darkness of realism and the funk of depression. I keep trying to gain the lesson given by Admiral Stockdale. I really should read his writings – there’s likely much more there. Right now, in Holy Week, people think a little more about the multiple expression of Jesus, divine and human. In general, people tend not to get that. Maybe the minority that understands some of that dual nature understands some of the Stockdale Paradox as well. Maybe the do, but in the general majority, I think not. There’s too much despair around, topped with hedonism masking despair.
I hope that I can gain more knowledge of how to act and what truly matters, and that I don’t have to go through what Mr. Murphy or Mr. Stockdale did to gain it. Their stories, and their heroism, have helped me, and for that I salute them. Maybe it is enough. Faith and discipline, together, is the lesson.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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One Response to The Stockdale Paradox

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