Stuck Like Stockdale

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood\’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

‘Now, compelled by the Spirit, I’m going to Jerusalem. I don’t know what will happen to me there. What I do know is that the Holy Spirit testifies to me from city to city that prisons and troubles await me. But nothing, not even my life, is more important than my completing my mission. This is nothing other than the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus: to testify about the good news of God’s grace.”
Acts 20:22-24 (Common English Bible)
On September 9, 1965, naval pilot James Bond Stockdale was shot down while flying a mission over North Vietnam. Forced to eject from his disabled plane, Stockdale parachuted down into a village where the inhabitants brutally beat him and turned him over to the North Vietnamese as a prisoner of war. For the next seven-and-a-half years he was held in the Hỏa Lò Prison—the notorious “Hanoi Hilton”—where he held the dubious honor of being the most senior naval officer in captivity. During this time he and his fellow captives (including future senator John McCain) were savagely tortured, starved, and interrogated. Their treatment was so severe that inmates took it for granted that they’d eventually be broken through torture and forced to make anti-American statements. New arrivals were coached by other prisoners to do whatever it took to survive. “But you first must take physical torture,” they were solemnly warned.
As an officer, Stockdale’s captivity was particularly brutal; when he was repatriated in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming he couldn’t stand upright or walk. But he nevertheless maintained what little composure he could, implementing a code of conduct for his fellow prisoners and routinely disfiguring himself so he couldn’t be used for North Vietnamese propaganda. Reflecting on his captivity in later years, Stockdale explained his mindset to business writer James C. Collins for his book Good to Great. He said that the prisoners who didn’t survive the Hilton were the optimists, the ones who believed that they’d be rescued or freed in no time. He explained that the key to withstanding extreme hardship was brutal realism: “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 added] Collins would term this seemingly contradictory duality of hope and realism as the Stockdale Paradox.
Around the world, millions, if not literally billions, of people are finding themselves in another form of captivity while under quarantine for COVID-19. The physical, mental, and psychological effects have been staggering. According to federal studies binge drinking among those trying to self-medicate has skyrocketed. Many living alone have found themselves trapped in impromptu solitary confinement. Domestic violence has exploded around the world and with it a new wave of divorces and separations. Unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression have thrown the lives and welfare of tens of millions of Americans into chaos, anxiety, and disarray. And with so many governments, both local and federal, domestic and international, treating the pandemic with a hands-off attitude exacerbated by widespread distrust of the scientific establishment, the global rate of infection doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
To weather this storm, we Christians need to take a good, hard look at the Stockdale Paradox. We will not be able to pray this away, and neither will the virus suddenly vanish overnight. It will take great discipline and fortitude to make it to the other side. For guidance, we can turn to the Apostle Paul, who in the book of Acts racks up one of the most prominent records of suffering in scripture, being arrested, imprisoned, and shipwrecked numerous times. Paul was never deterred from his calling to spread the Gospel, but neither was he unrealistic about its cost. While preparing to depart for Jerusalem in the twentieth chapter, he explained that he fully expected another round of imprisonment. That was the harsh reality. But the hope that tempered it—the hope Stockdale would insist on almost two millennia later—is the grace and strength of Jesus Christ. May we find the same strength and comfort as we steel ourselves for the worst to come.


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