The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James Stockdale (1923-2006) was an American Navy fighter pilot, speaker, and a one-time Vice-Presidential candidate. On September 9, 1965, Stockdale was leading a bombing mission over North Vietnam when his plane was shot down. What happened next is an extraordinary tale of courage, imprisonment, suffering, and the strength of the human spirit.

In that harrowing situation of being shot down behind enemy lines, Stockdale’s presence of mind determined how he would deal with what he knew was coming.

“After ejection, I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.'”1

Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds while parachuting into hostile territory, bullets piercing the canvas of his parachute was all it took for Stockdale to assess the situation. In his mind, Stockdale accepted the fact that he was going to be imprisoned for at least five years!

This decision making process has become known as “The Stockdale Paradox.” This is when you accept the reality of the situation and that you are going to be in for a long fight. The doctor’s given you or a loved one the diagnosis or maybe the layoffs going around the office are coming your way. This is the punch you see coming. Brace yourself.

In his mind, Stockdale relied on the Stoic philosophy he learned three years before while a graduate student at Stanford. Although his impending circumstances were out of his control, Stockdale knew his response was well within his control. How are you going to respond?

After parachuting down and landing in a tree line, Stockdale disconnected his chute and was summarily beaten by a local gang, who broke his leg. After a crude prison surgery, Stockdale limped the rest of his life. However, Stockdale’s five-year thought was off by two-and-a-half years. Stockdale spent seven-and-a-half -years in what was called, “The Hanoi Hilton.” Seven-and-a-half -years of imprisonment, suffering, torture, and solitary confinement.

When we are facing a crisis, we must be realistic about our expectations and our situation. In another speech, Stockdale commented that the most optimistic soldiers were the ones who had the hardest time with imprisonment. These soldiers would think, “We’ll be home be Easter.” Easter comes and goes. “We’ll be home by Christmas.” Christmas comes and goes. And so on until their spirit became broken.

Admiral Stockdale was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life. Stockdale and those other men endured hardships I would not want to imagine. This story also illustrates the importance of what we have stored away in our minds and spirits  will guide us through our crisis. Do you have a reserve of faith to draw on? Will the love of your family keep you going? Will it be philosophic teachings? Will the lessons of previous triumphs and/or perceived failures be your guide? While we have today, let us use the day to build up reserves for when the inevitable crisis comes. Do not live in fear of what may come, but accept the fact it may not leave willingly or any time soon.  God bless you all.

 

 

1James Stockdale, “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior,” from the book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. Hoover Institution Press (Stanford University): 189.

Name Your Price

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Unless you are independently wealthy, costs matter. In an age where numbers such as millions, billions, and even trillions are thrown around in political speech and casual conversations, many still have to account for every cent.

I believe Henry David Thoreau outlines the missing piece in the typical cost-benefit analysis: the amount of life and time we are going to exchange for our new home, the new job, or even an athletic goal. While it is a blessing and a noble effort to work hard and provide the best life you can, have you considered the long-term wear and tear on your body? If you are an athlete, will that small window of glory be worth it when the aches and pains remain after the cheering crowds have left? I believe in going after what you want in life, but we must factor in everything that comes along with it.

As Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher put it:

“If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.” 1

Epictetus also goes on to discuss the possibility of injury and losing the competition. Epictetus is encourage the reader to take a look at “the big picture” in order to test ourselves and our motives.

“By considering the big picture, you distinguish yourself from the mere dabbler, the person who plays at things as long as they feel comfortable or interesting. This is not noble. Think things through and fully commit!…Unless we fully give ourselves over to our endeavors, we are hollow, superficial people and we never develop our natural gifts…but consider first the real nature of your aspirations, and measure that against your capacities.”2

Jesus also encouraged us to consider the cost of discipleship in Luke 14:25-35. One example Jesus uses is someone who considers building a tower:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.'” (Luke 14:28-30, NIV).

Before we embark on anything in life, let us ask ourselves if we are truly willing to pay the real price to undertake it. God bless you all.

1Epictetus, The Art of Living, as interpreted by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (2006): 38.

2 Ibid, 39.

Arise

Arise

By Michael W. Raley

Arise out of the darkness,

Though it be familiar and convenient.

Fight and flee from what holds you down.

Mute the increasing clamor

And listen for that quiet inner voice.

Arise and re-focus your mind.

Filter everything as if this was your last day,

Ask yourself, “At the end, will this matter?”

Your time and energy are limited,

Make the most of them.

Arise, manage your judgments and perceptions

To find that tranquility and contentment

You so desperately desire.

Do not stumble on what is behind;

Look and walk ahead with clarity.

Arise, be the change you want to see.

Though the tide be against you, keep swimming.

Seek the love and faith that lies outside of yourself,

For it is there you will find the love, acceptance, and grace

You have denied yourself. Arise! Arise! Arise!

Embrace Today’s Second Chance

By Michael W. Raley

O how the body aches,

O how the heart breaks,

When you realize

That the dream has died.

All of the work, love, faith, and hope you planted as seeds

Has become a harvest of drought and weeds.

We shrug it off as not meant to be or not part of a plan,

Neither of which bring us comfort nor understanding.

Time will go on and somehow so will we,

Keeping our distance and remaining skeptical and leery.

The sacrifice and pain came at such a high cost

That it will take time to get over this loss.

However, some wounds will never heal

As we may become bitter about our raw deal.

Some things we will never get over, with the burden on our shoulders.

We perceive ourselves to be destined like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder,

Only to have it roll down the hill again.

Or consider Job, who sought an audience with God and an explanation,

Only to be pelted with unanswerable question after unanswerable question.

Yes, Job’s family and fortunes were restored,

But why did he have to go through all of that before?

We must hold on to the loved ones and days which remain,

In spite of the sorrow and pain.

We must embrace today’s second chance,

For as Aurelius said, we are meant to wrestle with this life and not dance.

The Hand You’re Dealt

The Hand You’re Dealt By Michael W. Raley

Swimming under a bridge that I’ve already burned;

It’s amazing how quickly your life can turn.

One small misstep or stumble

And down the mountain you go to be humbled.

The deck is stacked against me,

But, I’ll break even when I get to eternity.

 

These times have no rhyme or reason,

No winter, spring, summer, or fall,

It’s just one long and confusing season.

It’s high time to steady the weary knees and stand tall.

 

Trying to keep aflame the Divine Spark

Is a tall and mighty task

When you’re enveloped by the dark.

I seek the true way, in the Light I want to bask.

 

When the cards of fate were dealt,

I wasn’t asked what I thought or felt.

I’m learning not to complain,

Because it won’t change the circumstances or take away the pain.

Though this path I didn’t choose,

I will have to accept times of victory and a loss or two.

 

This is all part of a Divine Plan

That after ages still remains a mystery to every woman and man.

The only constant is change.

Thus, we must learn to adapt and rearrange.

Time is our most valuable resource,

So, take what you have left and plot a new course.

 

Negative Visualization and Faith

What’s the worst that can happen?” If you ever asked this question, you have been greeted more than likely with being shushed, glares, or heard, “Don’t say that.”

As humans, we do not like to contemplate the worst-case scenario. In fact, we develop a kind of superstition about such questions as “What’s the worst that could happen?” because we have tendency to think that asking such a question is going to invite some heartache or tragedy into our lives.

Although we do not like to mention it, we do take precautions against the worst-case scenario. If we are worried someone would break into our home, we lock our doors and windows, we install a security system, or we may purchase a weapon to protect ourselves in the event of a home invasion. We also purchase homeowner’s or renter’s insurance in the event our home is burglarized or damaged by a fire or disaster. We have health insurance in the event we get sick. We have car insurance in the event our car is wrecked or stolen. We buy life insurance to make sure our family is taken care of in the event of our death.

It is only right and commendable that we take precautions to protect our families and everything we have worked for in our lives. However, what if we were able to contemplate the worst case scenario without living a life crippled by fear and anxiety?

The Stoics practiced what is called negative visualization.

Negative visualization does not mean that we live as a “Gloomy Gus” or “Debbie Downer,” finding the negative in everything, but it teaches us to have peace of mind in the midst of challenging circumstances. Thus, negative visualization can mentally prepare us and lessen the impact of the worst case scenario. This in turn will increase the joy in our lives as we embrace our loved ones and this present moment even more.

According to William B. Irvine, “Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it. This in turn means that by practicing negative visualization, we can not only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experience will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circumstances.”[1]

Someone right now may be raising the objection, “Aren’t we as Christians supposed to have faith that God will protect us?” Yes, we are supposed to have faith, but our faith does not prevent us from experiencing hardships in this life.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22b, NIV).

“Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3, NIV).

“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

Thus, by practicing negative visualization, we can still have faith and joy in the midst of circumstances.

Going back to the example of protecting our homes. Let us imagine someone breaks-in to your house and steals your new TV. Naturally, we would be upset about our TV being stolen, but we can take stock of what’s around us. If we were to step back, we could be thankful that we were not physically harmed, our family is safe, our pets are safe, the house is still standing, and the insurance will replace the TV. We have reason to praise God although our TV was stolen.

We can examine terrible situations and still find a reason to rejoice. I have discussed in several posts about my battles with anemia and celiac disease. I was very ill and could have had a fatal heart attack due to the strain the anemia placed on my body. While going through the anemia was difficult, the doctors found out that I have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Patients with celiac disease also experience anemia. I had to make sudden dietary changes, but it worked out for the best because I am no longer anemic. I have my energy back and was blessed with a second chance at life.

I came close to death, but I did not die. I know that one day I will die, but I do not let that stop me from living life. In fact, going through this trial with my health has given the opportunity to be more mindful of the life that is all around me. My faith has been deepened through my experiences because I know that God has allowed me to endure and to overcome these obstacles. If I were to contemplate what would come next, I know I would be able to handle that as well. Maybe you have already experienced a worst-case scenario- whatever that is. You are still standing. You are still here. You have lived through that experience, even though it may be the lowest point of your life. You have the training and strength to get through the next trial. We must not take anyone or anything for granted. Let us be grateful for the present moment. God bless you all.

[1] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009:83.

It’s Not Too Late- You’re Right on Time

We live our lives in reverse. When we are seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-years-old, we are faced with the monumental decision of “what do we want to be when we grow up?” We often feel backed into a corner and forced to make life-altering decisions before we even start living our lives.

The truth is that most of us do not know what we truly want in our teenage years. We are in a continuous state of change and have not yet matured emotionally, rationally, or spiritually. So we go in search of a career- most go to college, a university, or a trade school. Some go into the military, and some may just go directly into the work force upon graduation- all of which are very good and viable options.

However, what happens when the ideal meets the reality? We grow frustrated, we may go through an existential crisis, or we may change our majors like some people change their socks. Maybe out of fear, a false sense of obligation, or a perceived lack of better options, we stick with the path we are on and stay frustrated, resentful, depressed, bitter, angry, and fearful. We may even feel like we have failed and have to spend the rest of our lives working toward a material success which will elude us.

Stop. Take three deep breaths. Quit beating yourself up. Quit comparing yourself to other people.

Not everybody will be a billionaire by age thirty like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Not everyone is athletically gifted to play professional basketball right out of high school like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett. Very few people achieve worldwide fame by the age of twenty-five.

The problem lies with our perception of age and success. We spent the vast majority of our lives pursuing what the Stoics called “externals”- fame, possession, wealth, the approval of others, etc., all of which are fleeting and out of our control. We also feel that we have to figure out the mysteries of life before we attain our first bit of wisdom or spiritual insight. When we compare ourselves to others, we will feel inadequate, and think of ourselves as inferior. You are not inferior, you are who God created you to be. Your best years are today and ahead of you.

Maybe you do not have one particular path- maybe you have several paths because you have multiple gifts and talents. Draw on all of your talents, skills, and experiences. Be the best you that you can be and do not worry about what others think.

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11, NIV).

Albert Einstein was not the greatest student in school. Winston Churchill had to repeat the fourth grade. Oprah Winfrey was fired in her early 20s. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Joe Montana was a third round draft pick. Tom Brady was a sixth round draft pick.

As I write this post, I am two weeks away from turning forty. I do not feel forty. I am not looking at the calendar with dread, but optimism.  In fact, the difficult and painful events of the last year-and-a-half, have only invigorated my spirit and I believe my best years are still ahead of me. I have re-enrolled in school and I am pursuing a new career. If you are reading this and you are under forty, relax, enjoy life where you are at. If you are over forty and reading this, you are entering the prime season of your life.

No matter your age or place in life, you still have time to achieve your goals and pursue your dreams.

*Ronald Reagan was in his 50s when he found a second career in politics.

*Harland Sanders was sixty-five when he opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken.

*Sam Walton was forty-four when he opened his first Wal-Mart store.

*Anna “Grandma” Moses started painting at age seventy-eight.

*Henry Ford was forty when he founded the Ford Motor Company and was forty-five when the Model T came along.

*Abraham Lincoln found a second chance in politics at forty-seven.[1]

While you have today, make it count. All of the events and experiences of your life have converged and brought you to this point for a reason, for this season. God bless you all.

[1] http://www.lifehack.org/370180/20-people-who-only-achieved-success-after-age-40. Accessed 8 January 2017.