The Stockdale Paradox and the Future of Liberty

If your only memory of Admiral James Stockdale is his bumbling performance during the 1992 vice-presidential debate, you don’t know the story of his remarkable life.  

Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military man held captive during the Vietnam War. During his captivity from 1965 to 1973, he was tortured over 20 times. Not knowing how long he would be held captive, Stockdale invented an elaborate internal communication system to reduce the sense of isolation from other captives. He disfigured himself so that he could not be used in propaganda videos. After Vietnam, Stockdale became president of The Citadel and a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

For his leadership book Good to Great, Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale. As a prisoner, Stockdale “never lost faith in the end of the story.” Stockdale told Collins, “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.”

Referring to Stockdale’s fellow prisoners, Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“That’s easy,” Stockdale replied, “the optimists.”

Collins was confused. To Collins, Stockdale sounded like an optimist. Stockdale explained the optimists were the ones who set a timeline for their release. They expected to be released, for example, by Christmas. Christmas would come and go without deliverance, and “they died of a broken heart.”

From Stockdale’s experience, Collins drew a universal lesson he called the Stockdale Paradox: “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 may be.”

Of his own life experiences Collins observed, “In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox (you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality) has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger—not just for me, but for all those who’ve learned the lesson and tried to apply it.”

The Stockdale Paradox has implications for liberty lovers. Freedom in America is objectively on the decline. Constitutional limits on government power are ignored. How do we maintain faith that liberty will prevail when confronted with the “brutal facts” that an illiberal populism is capturing both political parties and will likely be the dominant force in American politics for the foreseeable future?

Faith that liberty “will prevail in the end” is bolstered when we understand illiberalism is at odds with reality. 

Illiberalism is based, in part, on the fantastical belief that is possible to take away the rights of one group without diminishing one’s own rights. This is the world of victims and victimizers, us vs. them, a zero-sum world of competing groups where someone else must lose so you can win. In reality, rights are reciprocal. Our rights are maintained by supporting limits on government’s power to take away the rights of others. 

Many harboring illiberal beliefs do not understand the essential role of human cooperation. In Hayek’s words, “Our civilization depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation, an order more commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, known as capitalism.” Many believe the order they depend upon can be improved by their favored politicians and experts. 

At odds with the reality of what creates human flourishing, these illiberal beliefs lead to war, poverty, and suffering. Prof. R. J. Rummel estimates that 262 million civilians were slaughtered by governments in the 20th Century. Eventually, people wake up to reality. Yet, history should leave us with no delusions about how long beliefs at odds with reality can be maintained. They can be held long enough to do incalculable harm.

Maintaining Optimism by Making Meaning

Like Stockdale, Viktor Frankl was imprisoned under horrific conditions; Frankl in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has helped millions find meaning and purpose, even in dire circumstances. Frankl believed an individual never loses responsibility for decisions they make. “A human being, he wrote, “is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.” Frankl continued:

What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Frankl’s essay “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” is based on a speech he gave in 1983; the essay is included as a chapter in Man’s Search for Meaning. There Frankl argues for “an optimism in the face of tragedy and a view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

In his speech on tragic optimism, Frankl pointed to statistics showing that 30 percent of the population felt their lives had no meaning. Among those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, 90 percent felt their lives had no meaning. 

Frankl taught that we can find meaning “by creating a work or by doing a deed” or “by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love.” Yet, in contemporary times, meaninglessness seems endemic.

A poll of United Kingdom teenagers and young adults , ages 16-29, taken in 2019 before the pandemic, found 89 percent believed their lives “have no meaning or purpose.” Another survey, taken during the pandemic, finds declines in adults finding meaning in work or relationships. 

Frankl sees a way out of this crisis of meaning-making. “Most important,” Frankl wrote, “is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

Echoing Stockdale’s observations, Frankl pointed to research conducted at the Yale University School of Medicine, which reported many prisoners of war during the Vietnam war “claimed that although their captivity was extraordinarily stressful—filled with torture, disease, malnutrition, and solitary confinement—they nevertheless . . . benefited from the captivity experience, seeing it as a growth experience.’”

Frankl addressed “prisoners in San Quentin” and advised them that “you are human beings like me, and as such you were free to commit a crime, to become guilty. Now, however, you are responsible for overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond yourselves, by changing for the better.” For those who have made mistakes, Frankl saw the possibility of redemption.

Frankl observed those taking responsibility for their crimes in his interactions with prisoners. These prisoners had no desire to explain away their guilt, for “explaining away his or her guilt [would be] seeing in him or her not a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired.” Today, eschewing responsibility and blaming society are encouraged.  

That we all face death motivates meaning-making in life. Frankl asks, “Is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives?” Frankl continued with this principle of living: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.”

Taking Responsibility

Frankl pointed us to a radical sense of responsibility by honoring our freedom to decide our attitude. He famously wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The more we live by Frankl’s credo, the less win-lose, us vs. them thinking there will be, and the more liberty will be supported. It is an illiberal mindset that blames victimizers and demands the government exert power to treat some groups differently than others.

We like to think of ourselves as responsible human beings, but there is room for improvement in all of us. We want to believe the problem is that others are not behaving responsibly, but there is not much leverage in waiting for others to change.

If you are unsure how to be more responsible, I suggest a radical exercise as you go about your daily life: Observe each time you blame someone or something for your actions and withdraw from blaming. Are we as resentful as those we accuse of opposing liberty? 

In his book Bonds That Make Us Free, philosopher C. Terry Warner writes, “To take up a hard, resentful attitude toward others is to have to live in a resented world, a world full of people who oppose and threaten us. How they are in our eyes is reflective of how we are.”

Warner points out we can adopt a mindset where we “nurse our misfortunes as if they were badges of honor.” He continues, “we believe we suffer our setbacks and failures because of other people and achieve our successes in spite of them, making it also a combative and controlling way of being.”

The Stockdale Paradox reminds us that when faith falters, turning to false optimism is not the path forward. Such optimism, wrote Frankl in Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, “lull[s] us into complacency and… a rosy fatalism.” 

The world in 2022 faces many “brutal facts,” yet Frankl pointed the way to the timeless understanding that we are not powerless. We can choose to be better people today in our daily actions. Frankl wrote, “If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines what and how far something ‘progresses.’” We don’t have to lose faith in the story of liberty. As we live as responsible, free people, aligned with the reality of human flourishing, liberty prevails.

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