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  • Writer's pictureLeah Dawkins

The Stockdale Paradox and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

In the span of two weeks, I have watched good people, really good people, suffer imaginable pain in the form of familial deaths, chronic illness, separation and divorce, abuse, neglect- the list goes on and on. And it makes you wonder, why do bad things happen to good people?

I actually know the answer to this question, now, after a lifetime of wisdom gained, but in truth it can be a hard pill to swallow. I have struggled with explaining this concept in a way that embraces each person’s individual and the collective faith journey. Yesterday, I think I came across the best explanation for this age-old question and I want to share it with you.

It is known as the Stockdale Paradox as illustrated in the book “Good to Great.” In my research I discovered the Paradox is in relation to Jim Stockdale, POW at the Hanoi Hilton for seven years. He survived through torture and horrible daily conditions, starvation, filth, heat, wet.... just an unimaginable situation. Yet, he survived. He was interviewed for the book, and the following is his response when asked, why did he survive when others did not? 

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. 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.”

He was asked ‘Who didn’t survive?’

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

The interviewer pressed Stockdale for more details.

“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.”

Thus, the paradox...being optimistic while also being pragmatic. Seeing the situation as it really is, yet having faith in the ending, that you can make it. 

I love this explanation and his realism in describing what can only be described as a living hell. It is necessary to have a realistic view of the challenges we face, yet realizing in the end we will consider this point in our life a defining moment where we will prevail.

The part we must begin welcoming is the journey itself, not wish it away or try to trade it for someone else’s journey. We can’t forget it or be embarrassed by it,but embrace the pain/suffering/addiction/illness/depression/anxiety/loneliness path for the valuable lessons learned and the person it is forcing you to become.

How different would our life be if we began thinking about our current circumstances as a process to become our authentic selves? What if we began believing that what was happening, as horrible as it may be, was for our greater good? Imagining that once healed from the pain of the process, we will look back on that time with a sense of gratitude for not only surviving,but growing us closer to our authentic self.

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