Stockdale and Reality

One of the true heroes of my lifetime was James Stockdale, Vice Admiral, USN. His story is here and I recommend it. But I know him best for a piece of philosophy more applicable today than any other time in my life. It was discussed at length in the book 'Good to Great...' by Jim Collins. During his captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Admiral Stockdale embraced this paradox which kept him alive and mentally healthy:

"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.'

I've been mulling over this philosophy for nearly 20 years now and sitting in my room under self isolation reading the news and the projections of the immunologists I now find it a piece of bedrock for me.

I was reading an article in the New York Times, a synthesis of science and projection of our new reality. Here is the section most relevant to our future:

"No one knows exactly what percentage of Americans have been infected so far — estimates have ranged from 3 percent to 10 percent — but it is likely a safe bet that at least 300 million of us are still vulnerable.

Until a vaccine or another protective measure emerges, there is no scenario, epidemiologists agreed, in which it is safe for that many people to suddenly come out of hiding. If Americans pour back out in force, all will appear quiet for perhaps three weeks.

Then the emergency rooms will get busy again.

“There’s this magical thinking saying, ‘We’re all going to hunker down for a while and then the vaccine we need will be available,’” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.'

This will happen. Georgia will relax. Texas will relax. Bowling alleys will reopen. Spas will get back to work. And, in three weeks, the virus will return and we will recycle. Herd immunity will eventually solve the problem but with a 1% mortality rate and 300 Million people not yet infected we're looking at 3 million deaths. Unless that rate is really 1.5%. Or 2%. A number we will not know for certain until history records it.

We are in a kind of prison although not nearly on par with what Adm Stockdale experienced. But there are parallels and looking at the reality of our situation through the lens of his paradox will help maintain our herd sanity.

We will prevail in the end. This is not faith. It is numbers. The science of immunology will make great advances and will rightfully take its place in the van of our civilization. We will have a vaccine and, like polio, people will take for granted that they are immune and forget much of what happened during this period of time.

But that is, at best, years in the future. We will not have a vaccine in 2020. If everything goes perfectly we may have one end of 2021. Until that time the only real safety is physical distancing and personal sanitation. Everything in our world will change. This is a new reality where large groups of people will no longer exist, where restaurants will not be crowded, where the over 300 cruise ships no longer ply the seas full of quarantined passengers. Institutions where seniors are housed will no longer be viable.

The world will divide into two groups: those who have survived COVID-19 and are presumably immune with active antibodies and those who have never been infected.

The first group is free to move about the country. The latter leaves self quarantine at their peril.

There are brutal facts we must face. This is the second half of the paradox. While we must trust in the numbers, in the science, we must also face the reality of how to best survive the day to day struggle that has been so enhanced by this pandemic.

One further warning from VADM Stockdale:

"Who didn't make it out?'
"Oh, that's easy,' he said. "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.'

Moving forward with a healthy perspective requires holding both the idea of faith and the acceptance of reality in your mind simultaneously. We are all part of the paradox.


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