“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end … with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
— US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale
By Adrienne Matei
The Guardian (5/2/20)
Time is humanity’s ultimate organizing principle, and many, myself included, have longed for a neat finale during this pandemic – a day we can patiently wait for, when this will all be over.
At first, political authorities in many countries spoke of societal lockdown in terms of weeks – a challenge, yes, but a manageable one; there are even those who treated it as a rather novel adventure. More recently, as understanding of the pandemic develops, that metric is shifting, discouragingly, to months – even years.
“To me, hope for the future can be replaced by hope for the present – gratitude.”
Last week, Chris Whitty, the UK chief medical adviser, said that social distancing would have to continue at least all year, while Canadians have been told to expect limits on travel and gatherings for likely around a year and a half. Donald Trump recently admitted that America’s pandemic guidelines – which he initially claimed would be null by Easter – would likely remain into summer and, enigmatically, “beyond that”. Some regions are considering how to gradually reopen their economies, yet the experiences of Asian countries where infections surged as restrictions eased serve as cautionary tales. Dozens of experts have attested there will be no quick return to our previous lives.
Now that we are no longer at the beginning of this pandemic but in the seemingly interminable middle, the more relevant question to ask is not “when will this end?” but “how can we cope with this dragging on?”
One healthy thing you can do is to pre-emptively curb disappointment by readjusting your horizons, says Dr Amelia Aldao, a psychologist specializing in anxiety. Some of us may still have our hopes fixed to an event in the future – a July wedding we half-expect to attend, or a September getaway we think might just work out – and that can be problematic, says Aldao. “The way things are shaping up, there’s a lot of uncertainty – what’s going to be open? Is there going to be a second wave [of outbreaks]?” We just don’t know.
Looking forward to plans can be psychologically beneficial, keeping us engaged in life. But given the current circumstances, “Either focus on the right here, right now, the immediate days and weeks – we all have a lot of control over the next week,” says Aldao, “Or try focusing on the more distant future – maybe a year or more from now.”
Aldao’s advice dovetails with the wisdom of the US navy vice admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale, who spent seven years as a prisoner of the Vietnam war, is renowned for his articulation of what is now called “Stockdale’s paradox,” a “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” ethos captured by his quote: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end … with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
An advocate of steely pragmatism in the face of adversity, Stockdale observed that his cellmates – “the optimists” who believed they would be free by Christmas, then, when that didn’t happen, by Easter, and so on – became demoralized and “died of a broken heart”.
While our circumstances are distinctly unlike Stockdale’s, his wisdom regarding how to cope with uncertainty still resonates: we cannot afford to spend the entirety of this pandemic expecting normalcy to manifest just around the bend – doing so only compounds our pain. …
(Commoner Call photo by Mark L. Taylor, 2020. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to www.thecommonercall.org )