The Stockdale Paradox

I’m trying to put this last month of November into perspective, most of it was spent in South Africa where I had gone for an MRI to see what was going on with my arm and why the nerves in my arm were not reporting for duty. When I went for my appointment, the doctor wanted to see me first and after a brief exam, ordered more x-rays, and then a CAT scan, and then to see a neurologist, and then surgery, and then rehab, which consumes my life these days.

I am back in Accra now. Its nice to be back to a place that feels like home, and so fun to see all my dear friends who have kept me in their prayers this past month, but also disconcerning to see the deep concern on their faces. The weight loss, sagging shoulder, the pain they see on my face. “I know this isn’t how you were expecting this year to play out,” one said to me the other night, echoing what has been running through my mind a lot, and got me thinking about the Stockdale Paradox.

From Wikipedia:

In a book by James C. Collins called Good To Great, Collins relates how Stockdale described his coping strategy during his eight years in the Vietnamese POW camp.[1]
“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.”[2]

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied:

“Oh, that’s easy, 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.”[3]

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as 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 might be.”

It has now past six weeks since the accident, the point at which initial reports suggested a complete recovery. That now seems unlikely, and so it seems like I should start facing the brutal facts about this reality, all the while not losing faith that I will prevail in the end. It will just be different without full use of my right hand. I remember reading a story about James Taylor some years ago, written after he had sliced a nerve in his left hand with a machete. He was opening a coconut—cutting the husk off it– and looked away for instant, the same instant the blade came down and missed, striking between thumb and index finger. He had recovered but wrote there were certain songs he would never be able to play on guitar again, like the song “The Secret of Life,” which is ironic I thought because the rest of the verse goes “is enjoying the passage of time.” It’s the secret fear and fatal knowledge that someday we will injure our hand badly and not be able to play.

I’m coming to understand that song better these days, though I am not there yet. Previously my “secret of life” was enjoying the doing of things. I was always much more of a doing pastor, than a being pastor. As my thoughts have turned toward returning to the states in six months and resuming a practice of ministry, I realize how different that practice will be, no guitar, no web page design, no typing, editing, designing of bulletins and publications. Initially, I will be unable to do most of that, so I wonder what will I do? Maybe this is the prevailing and coming out stronger part, that my ministry will be more of a being one.

It’s amazing what one can do with one hand, like peel a tangerine, use chopsticks, tie shoes, and even keyboard one handed. So far I’ve resisted the urge to improve my lefthanded penmanship, which makes the signature on a credit card receipt look suspect, but no one seems bothered by it. Instead I’m focusing on new heroes, ones who didn’t let their one-handedness define them. I don’t want this to define me, to become who I am, or am perceived to be. I want to be like my friend Deanna. I had known her five years when I received a suggestion from a common friend that her pastor nominate her for an award for the disabled. Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that she was disabled, sure she favored one arm, but that’s just who she was. She is my hero because I don’t want to be that guy with the story and life of regrets. Sure I wish I hadn’t picked up that boogie board, or I wish I had seen the huge wave coming, or tossed the board before the wave hit, but I didn’t and now I must face the brutal reality: I may never regain full use of my right hand.


In church a few weeks back the pastor was preaching on how God’s Glory flows through Jesus. In South Africa I attended Hatfield Christian Church (, a large non-denominational church in Pretoria that our Ghana friend Maurine invited me to. Maurine is the sister of Adzo, Dean of students at Ashesi whom we met at Adzo & Nii’s wedding [click here], and who brought Maurine’s kids to our Thanksgiving Day Feast last year [click here]. Maurine works for the World Bank here in Pretoria, and at Adzo’s request arranged for my transport from the airport, housing and took me to church. So last Sunday, as the preacher is talking about God’s Glory, and the screen was flashing different supporting texts, while the pastor references them, except he skipped one. Hebrews 12:12. There it was on the screen, not the text of the verse, just its reference, and he completely blows past it. How odd, I thought, so I detoured from where he was going to look up that text.

“Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:12-14 New King James)

I about dropped my Bible when I read the word : dislocated. Later I looked up that verse in several other translations, but only the New King James translates it that way, in fact this is the only instance of the word dislocated, in all the Bible and here God gave it to just to me.
It was the next piece of the Stockdale Paradox puzzle, beginning to face the brutal reality, knowing I would come out stronger, but unsure how I was going to prevail.

Reading on the edges of this verse (what comes before and after it) I see it is a verse that comes after being disciplined, or “chastening” as the King James translates it. “”My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him;” verse 12:5b says and then adds “for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” The advice is to look beyond the current circumstance to a day when “what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed,” and to do this by “pursing peace with all people, and holiness.”

I have got to tell your this isn’t easy when your body is racked by pain and your right arm hangs limp and useless in a sling and you can’t do much without asking for help, like peeling an onion or putting on socks. I hate the loss of independence, and wonder, is this what I am supposed to learn?

“When the student is ready, a teacher will be sent,” I used to advise when difficult situations defied understanding. “If the student cannot, or will not learn,” I would add, “a bigger and more powerful teacher will be sent.” So I think I am being schooled on the art of asking for help and receiving it gracefully. Like today in church when they brought me up front and all the elders laid hands on me, and the church prayed. It wasn’t something I asked for, but it was received with hope, and during that prayer I began to be thankful for what this injury is teaching me. Like tonight at a Mission Society gathering when I met a short term missionary who has had great success with prayer healing, and I asked if he could pray for me. Six weeks ago Steve would not have done that

“You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, and I would add to Stockdale’s Paradox, a way to connect the two.


6 thoughts on “The Stockdale Paradox

  1. The old teacher stand by…Good to Great.I read it several years ago and walked away with one key thought. We are all born good but the Lord provides the great in the form of challenges that we must overcome and learn from. Pretty simple. Here in the States you’ll find some incredible rehab and nerve surgery happening. Dr. Nath in Houston is a leader in research and surgery.

  2. Steve, this is just beautiful. Through your incident, we are all learning more. Thank you for faithfully reporting on how God is working in your life, so that he may do the same in ours.We’ll continue to pray. Hope to see you soon!*Loreli*

  3. It’s appropriate time to make some plans for the future and
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