While We Journey On
As some of you reading this blog know, 2015 was an extremely demanding year for us. In January, Claudette was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of cancer, which carried with it the prognosis of 20% survival rate at the 3-year mark. The ordeal involved gruelling sessions of chemotherapy, radical surgery, radio and chemo combined and brachytherapy, all in the space of 8 months. Perhaps, equally traumatised were the boys who were only 5 and 8 at the time. As true soldiers they went through all the life changes which this situation involved and came to the other end more wonderful than ever.
October 2018 is an ode to my amazing wife and wonderful children, who came through it with flying colours.
One of the most amazing qualities Claudette possesses is her ability to keep the end game in mind while dealing with present realities as best as possible (while remaining very gracious). Is it resilience? Is it grit? Is it ‘The Stockdale Paradox’?
In his amazing book ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins describes the Stockdale Paradox as referring to the plight of
“… Admiral Jim Stockdale – the highest ranked military officer in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp during the height pf the Vietnam War. This man was tortured over 20 times between 1965 – 1973, lived out the war without any prisoner rights, no set release date, and no 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 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. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a ‘well-treated prisoner.’ He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps, death. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system – after x minutes, you can say certain things – that gave the men milestones to survive towards). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters (Tat-tap equals the letter a; tat-pause-tap- tap equals the letter b, tat-tap-pause equals the letter f, and so forth, for twenty-five letters, c doubling in for k). At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out ‘We love you’ to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honour….
The author read the Admiral’s book and this is his reflection:
“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 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 latter years of his life studying philosophy on this same 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 leg that had never 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. And 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.’
To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: ‘We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!’ …”
The author goes on to summarise his finding with the following:
“… What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox (you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties AND you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be) has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger – not just for me, but for all those who’ve learned the lesson and tried to apply it.”
In the past three years, I have witnessed first-hand the Stockdale Paradox in action in Claudette and to a large extent, the boys as well.
During this time, we have met many other survivors online where we read their stories. They are truly inspiring. We spoke with and met many others whose lives have been impacted by the most tragic of circumstances: accidents which robbed them of loved ones, terminal illness, loss of jobs \ houses \ security, ill children, you name it. Everyone who survives, fought for their lives.
I wish I could end this story by telling you that things will work out. Truth be told, as the doctors keep reminding us ‘It is not a matter of if, but when it will come back’. So, we, like many others, live with the deep realisation that the fight is not over.
However, we do not belong to the category of optimists from Admiral Stockdale’s story. We continue to keep the end in sight, because we know that while this world continues with its built-in wrongs, ills, tears, suffering and death, we shall keep fighting and hoping and knowing that the best is yet to come.
As another Admiral Stockdale put it a couple of millennia ago:
‘We are not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without His unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.’ 2 Cor 4:16-18
And so, at the end of 3 years with the odds against her, today I thank God for an amazing woman, who not only fights, but maintains the most amazing and gracious attitude towards herself, us, others and her God. Today I am grateful for our boys, who fight valiantly, many times without realising it – they are amazing examples to us all!
And this is an ode to all the other soldiers out there, who face the odds with the same determination and zest for that which is good, squeezing out the very last drop of what opportunities life affords them.
The best is yet to come! Do not let anyone and anything rob you of the future! Do not let anyone destroy your faith that good will prevail in the end, regardless of your current difficulties.
And one more thing: we DO know how the story ends!
Here’s a glimpse:
‘I heard a voice like a thunder: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making His home with men and women! They’re His people, He’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good – tears gone, crying gone, pain gone – all the first order of things, gone.’ Revelation 21:3-5