COVID-19, Meet James Stockdale

COVID-19 has focused attention of people across the globe. The scary news reminded me of James Stockdale, a nearly-forgotten American hero, and how he approached fear, isolation, and uncertainty.

Stockdale Didn’t Lose Hope

On September 9, 1965, Stockdales’ A-4 Skyhawk was shot down over Cambodia by friendly fire. Seriously injured, he was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong where he spent the next 8 years as a POW in a prison known as Alcatraz. He spent two of those years shackled in leg irons and another four in solitary confinement. His captors tortured him to the point of death on fifteen occasions.


Enduring separation from his beloved family and country with no assurance that he’d ever make his way to freedom alive, imagine what kind of man could face such a hopeless, painful situation yet still say these words years later:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. 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.”

In Times of Hardship, We Need a Paradox

How did Stockdale survive? It’s known as the Stockdale Paradox. Author James Collins described the paradox this way:
“You have to have faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Now comes the faith part. Humanity will survive, as will most people. Medicine will develop preventive and better treatment options. People will gather socially again. Businesses will learn new ways to operate, just more safely. And the markets will rebound.

Martin Luther understood this when he faced plague in his day, saying–

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it.” [Luther’s Works; Vol. 43, pg. 132]

Since COVID-19 Is Our New Reality, Use Your Time Wisely

The world is not operating under business-as-usual. Nor should you. What you do with the “extra” time now thrust upon you will determine if you grow from this crisis.

Here are 3 large buckets that good stewards will try to fill while we wait for the crisis to be contained:

1. Build Relationships

Stockdale created a code of knocks to communicate with fellow-POWs during his imprisonment. He didn’t let solitary confinement keep him from socializing with others.

Remember your college roommate who’s been on your mind, and you’ve been meaning to call? Now’s a great time to reconnect. When was the last time your wrote a letter? I’ll bet your mom would love to get one from you. Maybe you’ve thought you have all of the time in the world to play a game or take a hike with your kids, but something has always gotten in the way. Make it happen today. Go TV/cable/smartphone-free (gasp!) for a couple of nights a week to reinvest in those people who might not be around a couple of years from now. You won’t regret that investment.

2. Invest in Your Development

A student of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, throughout his captivity Stockdale reminded himself of this truth:

“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Can’t socialize, or go to work or school? You can still be responsible for yourself. If you used to have a 3 hour commute each day but now you work from home, what do you do with your time? Sure, you could binge-watch Netflix. But instead, you could spend that time developing your skills and knowledge.

For years I’ve bookmarked professional development articles to read, telling myself that I’ll read them on a rainy day. Guess what? It’s raining. I’ve started reading some excellent research and case studies that I wouldn’t have made the time for during regular times.

What about you? What have you been meaning to learn or research? What skills have you always wish that you’d developed?

3. Make Your Home Your Castle

As Stockdale’s plane crashed, he confronted his new, brutal reality by telling himself this:

Five years down here at least.

It turned out to be eight years. Instead of hoping himself into a different, false reality, he confronted the truth by accepting that he now had a new home.

As “distancing” and “isolation” become our new COVID-19 reality, we can still make good use of our time by turning our dwellings into castles. Those projects that you’ve been meaning to get to like cleaning the gutters, changing the light bulb that burned out on the porch during the 2004 Olympics, or organizing your home office so you can find the things you need, it’s time. As a side benefit, cleaning your home will give you something productive to do while also eradicating potential germs.

You Have Other Choices, Too

Instead of feeling trapped by the COVID-19 crisis, you can do other positive things to escape for bits of time:

  • Go for a walk outside. Nothing clears the mind like fresh air and the sound of birds
  • Listen to music that makes you feel alive
  • Read a book that will take you to a faraway place
  • Laugh at everything you can find
  • Spread hope to others by acts of kindness, like picking up trash on the side of the road or pulling weeds from your elderly neighbors’ gardens
  • Take your dog for a long walk
  • Have a sing-along with your family and neighbors

Have faith. Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality. And use this mandatory period of downtime to your advantage.

Besides taking COVID-19 preventive measures, what are you doing to develop yourself during this time?

(Let us know how we can help you. I can’t travel at the moment, but I’m offering virtual speaking, change management consulting, coaching, and we offer book publishing and marketing services. Contact us for details.)

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One Comment Add yours

  1. jill Steiner says:

    excellent and timely!

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