Exit Strategy

There’s a lot of talk at the moment on how to we exit ‘lockdown’ and a lot of talk about our mental health, and the need to be as strong as possible through this difficult period.

The need to not be caged is a very strong human emotion, and when one is caged it changes the whole dynamic of how we view life – especially when the current isolation is a partially voluntary one.

We read a lot about the tactics of the moment to ‘flatten the curve’ and the logic is reasonable indeed.

However, for those of us enduring it there can come a price in our mental wellbeing, and more recently, speculation about what the exit strategy might entail has been building.

It may therefore help to reflect on the experiences of others who have endured, and survived captivity and the example of the US Navy pilot James Stockdale may be very useful.

Commander James Bond Stockdale was the most senior naval officer held captive during the Vietnam War. He was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and spent the next seven years in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”.

James C. Collins, the author of that great business book Good to Great interviewed Stockdale and asked him how he had found the courage to survive and what were his coping strategies.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” replied Stockdale. “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 moment of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Fine words, and a belief that the outcome would be positive helped Commander Stockdale survive that trauma, and later become a vice-Presidential candidate in the 1992 US election.

Continuing the interview however, Collins then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale. “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.”

Stockdale concluded:

“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.”

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox, and whilst optimism and hope are invaluable, at certain times one just need to deal in facts and keep the faith of a joyful outcome.

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