This is Hard

18 Jun

“This is hard.”

That was all the email said. It was written by a friend of mine who has 2 young children and a husband with ALS. I’m still not sure what the events were that led to her writing those 3 words but I know those moments. Whether it is the lack of sleep, the pain of watching your partner suffer, the fear of not knowing how to make everyone whole again, the constant hemorrhaging of every resource you spent a lifetime building or perhaps just the weight of knowing it gets harder – it doesn’t matter how you get there because sometimes all you can feel is how hard it is.

I’ve experienced pain in my life. I’ve lost in love, failed in my career, been betrayed, experienced the death of my mom and best friend, made mistakes that left me embarrassed and ashamed. Amidst all the joy and privilege of my life I’ve felt the spectrum of pain and pleasure but through it all I never felt like I might break – until this. This has pushed me to the edge of my physical, emotional and spiritual limits, because this is hard.

But I don’t break and neither does my friend and it reminds me of a story I taught from years ago called the Stockdale Paradox. It is a bit long but worth the time. Here is that excerpt from the book Good to Great, found in chapter 4, pages 83-85:

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system—after x minutes, you can say certain things—that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, tap-tap-pause-tap equals the letter f, and so forth, for 25 letters, c doubling for k.) At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

You can understand, then, my anticipation at the prospect of spending part of an afternoon with Stockdale. One of my students had written his paper on Stockdale, who happened to be a senior research fellow studying the Stoic philosophers at the Hoover Institution right across the street from my office, and Stockdale invited the two of us for lunch. In preparation, I read In Love and War, the book Stockdale and his wife had written in alternating chapters, chronicling their experiences during those eight years.

As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak—the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth. And then, it dawned on me: “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “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.”

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked,

“Who didn’t make it out?”

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

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“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.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “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.”

I used to teach these lessons handed down from Admiral Stockdale but I never truly understood them until now. I used to tell my basketball players that you can’t win a championship or even a game right now. You can’t even win an entire possession because all you can win right now is this moment, just this one brief moment and if you win enough of them then the score will reflect that but you have to focus on the cut, the shot, the box out the one discreet task you are responsible for right now and then forget it and move on to the next one. Believing in the end of the story in that simple example does not mean believing you will win the game – it means believing that if you do those things then you will have done your job and you can feel good about that.

I don’t know if I am ready for what comes next, but I believe that if I am truly present in each moment and embrace the tasks at hand with an open heart then I will not break, I will have done my job as a father, husband and friend. Believing in the end of the story is what releases you to be present in the moment – to let go of the fear, worry and gut wrenching anticipation of some moving target we pretend is a finish line. This is the essence and the power of faith.

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6 Responses to “This is Hard”

  1. michael June 18, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Thanks John and Kimberly. May your dreams come true.

  2. Nancy Johnson June 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Your last line was right on, John. Faith.

  3. Amanda Hall June 18, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    John,
    Thank you for sharing. Truly moving words.

  4. Ginny Weber June 18, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    Your comments always leave me with strength to carry on in the struggles I endure in my life. Thanks so much. Love to your whole family.

  5. marie p. witzel June 18, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    faith in knowing you are being guided through the fiery furnace – protected in the den of lions – unharmed by the viper – will give you the strength, compassion, and understanding needed. much love, granny

  6. Caroline Musselwhite June 19, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Thank you. Every entry makes me revel in your strength and your kindness for giving it away, including to total strangers.

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