The Stockdale Paradox and Pornography Addiction

What is the Stockdale Paradox? The Stockdale Paradox is best described in Jim Collins’s book Good to Great. In it, he writes (83-87):

Admiral James Stockdale & Stockdale Paradox Applied to   Pornography AddictionAdmiral Jim Stockdale who was the highest ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965-1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create the conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda…[In Collins’ preparation of meeting with Stockdale, he read In Love and War]

As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak–the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors and so forth. And then it dawned on me: “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on the same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said when I asked him, “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.”

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff lef that enever fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said, “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“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. Then they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “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.”

That conversation with Admiral Stockdale stayed with me, and in fact had a profound influence on my own development. Life is unfair–sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks…What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.

The Stockdale Paradox simply is maintaining unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.

And so it is with recovery. We must do two things:

  1. Maintain hope and unwavering faith that I can and I will prevail in the end, and
  2. Confront the brutal facts and effects of my current reality.

Hope. Reality. In my own recovery, it is extremely difficult for me to do both. Typically in the past, I either have one or the other, but primarily one and that being a naive, faint hope. I have only been an Optimist, as Stockdale put it, and I have died again and again and again. I am not surviving whatsoever. I tend to shy away from confronting the “brutal facts” of my current reality. And that’s what they are: brutal.

My reality, your reality, is often exposed by our significant others, our spouses, at many times we may not find convenient…then again, no time is convenient! This paradox forces us to get out of denial and fantasy and face reality and real life.

As the Calvin (little boy) and Hobbes (tiger) comic goes, Calvin says something like, “If I see/hear something I don’t like, I think I’m going to ignore it.” And Hobbes says, “Don’t you think that’s kind of irresponsible.” And Calvin says, “Wow, isn’t it a nice day?”

Pornography Addiction Ignoring Reality and Hope

That is many of us. We ignore things I don’t like instead of confronting them and facing them head on. I am the big pink elephant in the room, and I am perfectly happy so as long as no one talks about me, talks to me about me, or brings a mirror in the room.

Scot Peck, in the Road Less Traveled, says:

We must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is the on-going process of dedication to reality at all costs.

This is extremely difficult; however, it is one that we must do if we wish to live and be free. John 8:32 says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For so long I wanted to be free without knowing the truth, without anyone else knowing the truth, and if I could help it, without God knowing the truth. Recently, I have been thinking more and more about this verse, so let’s break it down a bit. John 8:32 states that the truth will set me free. Then in John 8:36, Jesus says, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” So who/what sets me free?

And part of knowing the truth, that is, Jesus is obeying Jesus, for John 8:31 says, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples.” This is consistent with much of 1 John which speaks about abiding in Christ and obeying Jesus’ commands. However, for many of us, the truth is that we haven’t been following Jesus’ teachings in regards to sexual immorality. The truth is that we haven’t been obeying Jesus Christ with my tongue, lying constantly and rather consistently. The truth, my reality, is that we have created a wake that is ugly, devastating and brutal for all parties involved.

However, now is the time for a commitment to both sides:

  1. Maintain hope and unwavering faith that I can and I will prevail in the end, and
  2. Confront the brutal facts and effects of my current reality.

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