Have you ever experienced high hopes for a certain outcome only to see them turn into despair, disillusionment, and heartbreak? So often, when someone experiences an emotional high only to have the news turn south, they experience tremendous grief, anguish, and hopelessness. Those who are naturally optimistic can often recover, but after numerous disappointments, the ability to climb out of the emotional pit of despair becomes impossible.
These emotional rollercoaster highs take a toll on the human spirit. The falls from enthusiastic highs are damaging, much more so to the one who has an unrealistic view of the circumstances.
This phenomenon is known as the ‘Stockdale Paradox,’ named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American POW from the Vietnam war. Author Jim Collins asked Stockdale to comment on those who did not survive captivity in Vietnam. Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.” 1
I have a friend going through some difficult times and have had the opportunity to share some of my bumps in the road as they would apply to his own circumstances. I would share what worked for me and what did not work, but ultimately I explained he was in his own set of rapids, and I was not about to place my hands on his rudder. I told him early on I was not going to sugar-coat anything and that things did indeed look bleak. Those frank conversations with him may not be the most encouraging, but they were heartfelt, honest. They did not supply him with unbridled, unsubstantiated optimism that would often end in a long emotional fall.
Stockdale has explained the ones who perished were the ones who said we would be out by Christmas. Out by Thanksgiving, then again out by Christmas, but were terribly disappointed each time and eventually could not climb out of the abyss they found themselves. Stockdale explained, “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.” 2
I had the blessing of meeting about once a week with a retired pastor, Russ Peters before he passed away. Russ told me more than once his favorite character in the bible was Joseph. If you ask me, Joseph was someone who started out as a spoiled brat. Not smart enough to keep his mouth shut around his older brothers, who finally decided to dispose of him. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, but in my opinion, had a change of character for the better, and was blessed by God. Ultimately, Joseph was put in charge of his master’s estate, who recognized that God honored Joseph and his efforts. Genesis 39:1-6 Again, circumstances changed, and Joseph found himself in prison, rags to riches, to rags again.
If Joseph fell into a pit of despair, it was not recorded in the bible. But it does say that Joseph continued to have favor and was blessed by the Lord. 39:20-23 Joseph’s circumstances did not dictate his attitude, (woe is me), his passions (living for the Lord), or his faith (trusting despite his circumstances).
Surviving difficult or circumstances involves three factors. It is not just physical fitness and situations (being in a certain place at a certain time), but factors that often can’t be measured or plugged into an algorithm. Dr. Spain, chief of trauma at Standford University and one of the most experienced trauma surgeons in the world today, talks about this when being interviewed by Ben Sherwood, author of ‘The Survivors Club’.
Personality is the first one. You have heard it said someone being as ‘tough as nails, ‘hard as rock,’ ‘strong as an ox,’. People in those kinds of categories often fair better. They don’t quit and will fight, hanging on to life till the very end.
Another factor that Dr. Spain has noted over the years is the size of the crowd in the waiting room. Sure he has seen patients pass on who have been surrounded by friends and family, but he has noted that those who have a large crowd seem to recover when others don’t. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 speaks to friends who help each other up, and Proverbs 27:9 tells us how sweet it is to hear the voice of our friends.
Finally, he has noticed that faith comes into play. And not necessarily the survivor’s faith, but it could be the faith of the family and friends. Again, this factor is not quantifiable, but he shared that some people survive trauma that defies all scientific explanations. One patient of his Gary McCane Jr. had 3rd-degree burns on 85% of his body from attempting to rescue two fellow workers trapped in a cistern. Dr. Spain said, “I swear to God that guy had an angel watching over him.” Not only did Gary survive, but he was released a year early, challenging all medical explanations.
One night in particular, Gary’ coded’, and that night his grandfather gathered multiple ministers to pray, and they all laid hands on the double doors praying for Gary. When Gary woke up, he described a vivid dream and the layout of the floor he was on, walking down a sterile white hallway, passing the nurses station, but could not push open the double doors to exit. What can’t be explained is he could not have known the layout of his floor; Gary was in a medically induced coma for 75 days. 3
A few months ago someone asked me about my upbeat attitude after having gone through some difficult times. To be sure, that was not always the case. I have had plenty of times where the burdens of life were overwhelming and the tears flowed, but my reply addressed my confidence in where I am going. I enjoy life; I enjoy my time with my kids, family, friends, students, and people in general. But above all that, I look forward to where I am going. This world is not my home, not my final destination. Revelation 21:4 This life will not be worry-free, full of ease, comfort, and pleasure, and to have those kinds of unsubstantiated optimisms can only lead to disappointment. You see, unwarranted optimism not only kills those in a prison camp as in the Stockdale Paradox, but it can also kill faith.
We may not all experience an optimism that leads to answered prayer. In fact, most of us don’t. But even if it did, that is no guarantee that someone might believe and attribute the miracle to God. Luke 16:31 Nevertheless, the Christian faith is completely hinged on the miracle of the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:16-19 Paul Copan wrote, “The Christian faith stands or falls on God’s miraculous activity, particularly in Jesus’ resurrection. Scripture readily acknowledges the possibility of miracles in nonbiblical religious settings… Miracles don’t compel belief, but for those willing to receive them, they do serve as sufficient indications of God’s activity and revelation.” 4
Our faith as Christians should be forward-looking. Those who push the life of prosperity, continual answered prayer, a victorious life free from diseases in this life, setup others to fall in their faith. Derek White wrote, “Our inheritance is secure, though we do not yet experience it in its fullness. And the prosperity pushers who teach otherwise—that Christian victory is something to be obtained here, now, ‘before Christmas,’—are just setting their listeners up for a spiritual death by heartbreak.”5
Stockdale Paradox by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
- Sherwood, Ben. “The Statues in the Storm.” The Survivors Club, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2009, pgs 40-41
- Sherwood, Ben. “The Statues in the Storm.” The Survivors Club, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2009, pgs 41-42
- Sherwood, Ben. “The Statues in the Storm.” The Survivors Club, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2009, pgs 99-101
- Copan, Paul. “Miracles Are Unscientific.” When God Goes To Starbucks, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2008, pg 54
- White, Derek. Prosperity Preaching and the Stockdale Paradox.” Stand To Reason. STR.org, 10 June 2010. https://www.str.org/w/prosperity-preaching-and-the-stockdale-paradox