Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James (Jim) Stockdale. Amongst many other things – former President of the Naval War College, US Vice Presidential candidate in 1992 – Admiral Stockdale was the highest-ranking, longest held captive in the Viet Nam war’s infamous Hanoi Hilton and even worse, the prison they dubbed ‘Alcatraz.’

The infamous North Vietnamese prison was the site of incarceration, torture and interrogation of US military personnel and included a predominance of pilots shot down during bombing raids. North Vietnam had signed the Geneva Convention of 1949 which included the requirement of decent and humane treatment of any prisoners captured and held during war…yet…the prison was the site of horrific atrocities to the American servicemen: extended periods of solitary confinement. Rope bindings. Shackled in 15 pound leg-irons. Intermittent beatings. Hung by their wrists, still tied behind their backs, from a meat hook. Kept at states of near starvation – then fed watery soup laced with pebbles or feces. Forced to stand on stacked stools for days on end. Held by stocks at the ends of their beds, lying in their own excrement while rats and roaches ran freely around and on them.


Unimaginable atrocities that tore at them physically, emotionally, mentally.

Admiral Stockdale was interviewed for a book, and the author mentioned that obviously, Stockdale was an optimist, which had helped him endure his nearly 8 years of hell.  Not so, Admiral Stockdale declared. The optimists actually were some of the first to succumb, and some of the least likely to survive. He went on to explain: “They were the ones who said ‘we are 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 Easter again. And they died of a broken heart.”

The author was puzzled…then how did you survive…through physical hell, but also through the mental and emotional devastation and torture?

Admiral Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable and never stopped believing he would get out. He would be reunited with his family, return to the country he loved. He never lost site of the vision, yet ‘he faced the brutal realities along the way.’ In so doing, he set up ways to cope with whatever situation he was in in a given moment – leaving messages in the latrine, creating set times to say the Pledge of Allegiance or leaving code messages in letters home to his wife – even though he wasn’t sure his letters ever got sent.

The optimists failed to confront the reality of their situation, to face the challenges authentically and to use whatever resources they had to deal with that specific and particular moment.  They just kept hoping for the difficulties to go away – which may have made it easier in the short-term, but when again and again and again their expectations did match up with reality – they were broken and succumbed to death.

Several years prior to DDay, and my coming to find out that my 27 year marriage was really fraught with deception and betrayal, I had read about Admiral Stockdale…his Paradox of survival – even more – flourishing after the extended period of pain. It intrigued me…and I adopted this attitude, which required diametric change from my FOO. My family was filled with optimists who denied realities along the way, and always believed it would all just work out. I never saw, prior to uncovering Stockdale’s Paradox how ill-equipped this left me, and perhaps could be a reason for some of my blind acceptance, or out-of-bounds frustrations. I became committed to seeing and believing the vision for my life, my marriage, my family yet to face the brutal realities along the way. Of course…I had no idea what that would mean a few years later.

That is how I have approached betrayal, cheating and lying as it all unfolded. A vision – for me that I never stopped believing. For who I was and where I wanted to be. Did that include HUSBAND? Not so sure…because as each brutal reality unfolded, I faced it and continue to face it. I didn’t do it alone. I used the resources I could find. I dug through articles and sites and forums on the internet. I called out to a couple of therapists and spent time on their “couches.” Sometimes we, sometimes me. I reached back and reexamined memories and tried to see them for what they really were, not what my idealized mind had made them. I joined a support group with whom I am still intimately engaged, sometimes needing their help & guidance, and sometimes now, being able to offer my perspective.

I found this amazing community of bloggers who press me further and challenge and support. And care.

Slowly, I have come out of this torture more battered and bruised and broken yet more humble and grateful and whole. The Stockdale Paradox. Lived out.