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The Stockdale Paradox meets Thanksgiving 2020

Admiral James Stockdale was held for seven years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. He survived unspeakable brutality and lived all of those years not knowing if or when he might be killed. When interviewed by Jim Collins in Good to Great, Stockdale shared the key to his survival: 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. 

Collins followed with another question: “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale’s answer gave rise to the Stockdale Paradox. He responded: 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….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. (emphasis mine)

Admiral Stockdale survived on a hope borne out of reality. The paradox is of course you have to be honest about a situation – all of its pain, anxiety, and uncertainty in order to grab hold of a true hope that has enough strength to carry you out. We see a testimony to this kind of hope written throughout the Bible. It is the grit and fear of the Israelites standing at the edge of the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army was closing in on them, the courage of a shepherd boy facing the giants of this world, the encouragement of the prophets, the plaintive and unyielding cries of the Canaanite woman, and the resolve of Jesus serving his friends at their last meal together. Scripture tells us that God has no need for a brave front or a call to cheery optimism. God honors our honesty and in Jesus became: the truth, the way, and the life.

As we consider how much will be different this year around our holiday tables and in our traditions, let us be encouraged by the story of grace found in scripture and the testimony of one who overcame much. May we cling ever to the faith that we will prevail in the end even as we adapt to the realities that surround us. Happy Thanksgiving even now and especially now.

Amanda Atkin
Associate Minister of Faith Formation