The Stockdale Paradox

I have recently come across a mental device that seems quite helpful in facing difficult circumstances and finding ultimate meaning in life.  In his book Good to Great [HarperCollins: NY, 2001, pp. 83-87] Jim Collins describes what he calls the “Stockdale Paradox” citing Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s approach to his experience of captivity in the Vietnam War.  Simply stated, it is this:

Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties – AND at the same time – Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Stockdale also added, “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.”  Some remember Stockdale from his oft-parodied run as Ross Perot’s vice-presidential running mate in 1992.  His comparative depth of experience and accomplishment make his ‘better know in some circles’ SNL impersonators appear the true lightweight fools.

While Stockdale rooted his approach in Stoic philosophy, this attitude can be appropriated in our lives as Christian individuals and communities of faith.  Like those whom God rescued from slavery in Egypt, like those whom God restored from Babylonian captivity, we are defined by a God who is rescuing and will rescue us from sin and death.  We will prevail in the end so we can confront with honesty whatever are the brutal facts of our everyday situation right now.

As a church congregation, for example, we will not allow realities such as deteriorating bricks and mortar and national statistics of decline in church attendance and giving to deter us from our core mission of serving God and our community.  On the contrary, by prayerful, focused action we are seeking to utilize these circumstances to define a legacy that honors God and blesses people for decades to come.   Thanks for being part of this effort.

In the days and weeks to come, how will you apply the Stockdale Paradox in your life?

Grace and peace,


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