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Home >Opinion >Columns >Covid and the Stockdale Paradox of realism and faith

Covid has literally affected a close family member—a parent, aunt or friend—of every Indian I know. If the past few months have been horrific, it appears that the future may be worse—with many experts predicting a third wave of infections. How does one keep hopes up in times like these?

The Stockdale Paradox has something to teach us. Jim Stockdale, after whom it is named, was an American soldier imprisoned by the Vietcong and one of the vanishingly few to survive eight long years of imprisonment and torture.

Stockdale attributes his survival to being able to accept the harsh realities of his situation while, at the same time, having faith that he would one day be free. By contrast, prisoners who were overly optimistic—and dreamt of being free by the upcoming Christmas—died of broken hearts. As Stockdale puts it, “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."

I believe that the best way out of the dark night we currently face is to practise what Stockdale preached: Confront the brutal reality while also having the faith in the endgame. Confronting brutal reality means practising safe behaviour—wearing masks, exercising social distancing, getting vaccinated, and, if needed, getting admitted to a hospital. Practising safe behaviour is obviously important to avoid covid and minimize its spread. Yet, a surprisingly large number of Indians appear averse to safe practices. One of my own relatives resisted getting tested for covid, despite her husband contracting the disease, because she was afraid to “find out the truth." As it turns out, she tested positive and was admitted to a hospital. But because of the delay in getting tested, she couldn’t find a hospital bed for over 24 hours and couldn’t share a room with her husband. And all of this caused unnecessary stress for her family.

Confronting brutal reality also means resisting delusional thinking, like believing in quack remedies such as inhaling steam or imbibing cow urine. While these quack remedies may not be harmful, they won’t improve one’s chances of surviving covid.

At a more general level, confronting brutal reality means following the science. In this regard, it is important to recognize that science is not the opposite of spirituality. If anything, science can promote spirituality. At a conceptual level, scientific findings (such as quantum entanglement, or a light flash at conception—YouTube them) help us recognize that the universe is mysterious beyond belief, thus promoting spirituality. At a more mundane level, science permits the dissemination of spiritual information (say, via the internet). So, science and spirituality go together. Yet, many resist following science in the name of spirituality. A close friend of mine is an ‘anti-vaxxer’ because he believes that religion does not sanction vaccination. My friend doesn’t realize that if religion were invariably opposed to science, we would not have Ayurveda.

To me, ‘confronting the brutal reality facing us’ while also ‘having the faith in the endgame’ means taking advantage of both science and spirituality. Specifically, while science can help confront the brutal reality, spirituality can instil faith in the end-game.

Consider placebo effects, the finding that subjective beliefs about curative properties of a drug increase the objective probability of being cured. Extrapolating placebo effects from medicine to ‘life’ suggests that those who believe that ‘covid will end and good things will follow’ are more likely to experience positive outcomes. It is in this way that spirituality can foster ‘faith in the endgame’. That is, those with a spiritual belief—such as the belief that ‘everything that happens is for a reason’—are more likely to entertain a positive outlook about the future and thus more likely to experience positive outcomes.

But you don’t have to be spiritual to have faith in the endgame; simple things that improve positive mood will work. For instance, limiting exposure to the news (which is mostly negative) and social media (which has been shown to make one feel negative) will improve mood and hence optimism. Likewise, limiting interactions with people (especially complainers) who make you feel angry, sad or anxious, will help.

A final way to foster ‘faith in the endgame’ is to actively prepare yourself for the future. What skillsets might the world need a year from now? For instance, it seems very likely that more of us will be working from home even in a post-covid era. Upskill yourself to take advantage of that future. So, don’t fritter away your most productive times of the day by binge-watching Netflix or responding to ‘urgent’ (but not important) emails. And take good care of your health by eating healthy, exercising and getting sufficient sleep.

As we struggle through this very difficult time, many will experience untold misery and sadness. But through this dark night, let us, like Jim Stockdale, resolve to confront the brutal reality—whatever that may be—while also harbouring an unshakeable faith in the endgame.

Raj Raghunathan is Zale Centennial professor of business, McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, and teaches consumer behaviour at the BITS School of Management (BITSoM)

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