I finished a new novel recently, one I enjoyed enough to share with all of you. It’s called The Good Father by Noah Hawley, and it’s an exploration of what might happen to a parent when his child is accused of doing something terrible. In this case, Dr. Paul Allen’s son is accused of shooting and killing a candidate for President (I’m not giving anything away by revealing that plotline). Paul eventually starts traveling around, talking to people who knew his son during the months leading up to the shooting. One man he talks to is named Carlos.
Carlos tells Paul a story about his brother who stepped on a land mine. His legs were saved but his intestines were crippled. He needed a colostomy, and doctors repeatedly told him it was temporary. They keep telling him that he will use the toilet in the normal fashion again. But their promises don’t come true. He continues to need the colostomy. After two years of false hope his brother couldn’t take it anymore, and he kills himself. Carlos says:
Acceptance is the key to happiness. If those doctors had told my brother he’d be crapping in a bag for the rest of his life, he would have accepted it. He could have found a way to be happy. But instead they gave him hope. They promised him a better life. And so he spent every day hating the life he had.
Though fictional dialogue, this scene really struck home. It immediately reminded me of Admiral Jim Stockdale and The Stockdale Paradox. Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking naval officer held as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam. Captive for more than seven years, tortured more than 20 times, Stockdale is an expert in how to deal with hope. Stockdale talked about his experience to James C. Collins, eventually published in the book Good to Great:
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.
Stockdale’s next observation floored me the first time I heard it. He was asked to talk about those who did not make it home, who died in Vietnam after being taken into custody:
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.
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.
Stockdale is telling us to forget the eternally positive attitude, the belief that hope is enough. He says, rather, that you must always believe you will succeed, but not place an expiration date on it. In fact, doing so (“I’ll be better by Christmas”) can, in his opinion, be a recipe for disaster and self-destruction. Stockdale had a failed political career, but that doesn’t matter to me. He made it through his confinement, and what he thinks about the reasons for it interest me.
I’ve never been a believer in the “a positive attitude is everything.” That doesn’t mean I don’t think you generally should have one. Like Stockdale, I believe you must fight as if you will win. But, and this is key to me, you must accept that you do not know the outcome. This is where I differ with Stockdale’s prescription. I believe you cannot confuse having hope with the reality that your hope may not be, and often will not be, enough.
A few weeks ago as my three children had their dental checkups, I picked up People magazine. I skimmed the letters to the editor. One letter, from a woman named Barbara, referred to a prior People story about Ryan O’Neal having cancer. “I know that he will overcome this because he has immense strength and courage,” she wrote. Barbara is not unique. I have heard this exact statement countless times.
First, I’m fascinated by Barbara’s knowledge over O’Neal’s outcome. To claim she knows what’s going to happen to him is pretty remarkable. She has no knowledge about anything except a few quotes in a pop culture magazine and yet she “knows” he will overcome it. Second, and this is the big one: strength and courage are not enough, I’m sorry to say. Don’t those who die from cancer have strength and courage? Is it their fault that they aren’t surviving? Strength and courage are needed, for sure. But just having them won’t do it. You can’t think the cancer away.