The Stockdale Paradox

James_Stockdale_Formal_Portrait

In the middle of teaching a class on Active Threat Response and thinking of how important is the mindset aspect of this kind of work. It called to mind the concept of the Stockdale Paradox.

Admiral James Stockdale was a Vietnam War hero, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (among other high combat honors), and one time Vice Presidential candidate. He was also a proponent of Stoicism

Ah, if only we had his like now!

Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for over seven years. His composure, his actions, and his leadership during that time earned him the Medal of Honor.

Stockdale has been quoted as saying:

“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.”

This speaks to every one of us who at one time or another may come face to face with the stark reality of our own death. The faith that you will prevail in the end, held alongside the brutal facts of your current reality…

It’s described as a duality, a paradox, which I suppose it is by most people’s account.

But it’s not. It’s a monism. Hard to grasp, I know, but in that moment, or in those years of the most demanding of meditations-in-action that Stockdale endured, it can only be oneness.

Stockdale is not the only one to remark on this. One of my favorite quotes comes from G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die…A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

– G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy.

Though from Christian perspective, Chesterton’s quote has much in common with the Stoic ideas that galvanized Stockdale, and those that form the bedrock of the classical martial ethos.

And those that should inform the cultivation of our armed professionals today…

 

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