Just when the stress level of sheltering-at-home is nearing its breaking point, with a 34.1% increase in prescriptions for anxiety medications, now comes even more worry about protecting our health from COVID-19 upon the reopening of public places. 

It is too soon? Is it not soon enough? What steps will businesses actually take to insure they’re meeting health standards? Do businesses reopening now even know what the specific standards are? Will people be more vulnerable to COVID-19? What about the second round of this disease? 

Anxiety is soaring. And we read that we need to be positive and optimistic? Is that what all we really need, to just be optimistic? Maybe we need more. Maybe we need a mental balancing skill to help us grow through these challenging times, one that rests on both faith and reality.

While the last month or so of quarantine-related mental strain wasn’t quite what former Vice-Presidential candidate, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale suffered when he was captured by the Viet Cong in 1965 and was then physically and mentally tortured for almost 8 years, we can learn a great deal from his experience. 

He tells us in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, that simply being an optimist doesn’t predict well for surviving in the face of challenging circumstances. He says, “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.” How’s that for a survival plan?

It’s called the Stockdale Paradox, and it simply means balancing optimism with realistic acceptance of your circumstance, regardless of how dire it may be. Acceptance is not pessimism. It is reality. This paradox teaches the value of both having faith that you can and will overcome your roadblocks (remember my column this week on self-efficacy?) while accepting the hard facts that those obstacles may create in your life. 

Sure, we believe we’ll come out of COVID-19 fine, the economy will bounce back, kids will be back in school with no ill-effects of home schooling, relationships will smooth out, we’ll all be back high-fiving each other in our gyms, and life will be fine once again. But the reality of our situation right now? Well, that’s quite a different picture. Our best stance for thriving and flourishing optimally through COVID-19, is to acknowledge our arduous reality while maintaining positivity, faith, trust that we will be ok in the end. One without the other, according to the Stockdale Paradox and similar philosophies, is dangerous.

Stockdale shared this observation about those that were chiefly optimistic: “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.”

This paradox teaches us that they failed to find the balance of confronting and accepting the reality of their dire circumstance. As we know, acceptance, or what some refer to as “radical acceptance,” isn’t pessimistic at all. It’s receiving life on life’s terms, without resistance, free of the “I can’t stand this,” mindset. 

Are there realities you are not accepting about COVID-19?

Has your ability to really believe you will come out of COVID-19 well, been weakened?

Try these rudders to face the fear, navigate through the confusion, and accept the uncertainty of COVID-19 with emotional composure, so necessary to move through with success. It’s as straightforward as ABC:

Accept – Fight, resist, oppose pain, disappointment and sadness and you’ll likely suffer more. Resilience requires flexibility, acknowledging the reality of a situation and bending, twisting, being agile in the face of it. Stand firm and you’ll likely break. Try this. Imagine a great force is running towards you. You stand your ground. The force is likely to bowl you over. Now, imagine this. The same force comes running at you with the same speed. Just as that force approaches you, you yield by stepping aside while tapping the force on the shoulder. Who is bowled over now? Get it? Yes, I’m in this situation that I don’t like, didn’t ask for and prefer never happened. I can’t change it, but I can accept it.

Balance – It’s essential that we courageously open ourselves to notice the reality of our circumstance, not what we hope it is, but discover the actuality of what truthfully it is. This is an essential element in the Stockdale Paradox. This doesn’t necessarily mean magnifying only the dangerous. It means grasping the full spectrum of our situation, including the positive, in a realistic manner.

Celebrate – I’ve said from the beginning of this pandemic that COVID-19 is an opportune time. Yes, I fully accept the struggles, and of course I brace myself to distinguish fact from fiction. Yet, through it all, we will benefit by wisely detecting and fully appreciating the possibilities offered by COVID-19, the prospects for our growth, our personal transformations, that can emerge through this adversity. What have you learned through this time? What has changed for the better in the way you look at life, the world, others, and yourself? 

There is always light in darkness and our ability to discern and be open to both will help us through any impediment.