In the darkness, I lie completely still on my right side. But my insides are churning—as they have been for the last month with pregnancy-induced nausea—and my mind is churning, too, as I think ahead to the two more months of enduring this feeling day after day, hour after hour.
I always feel worse at night, and, thankfully, my husband is now home and feeding our toddler his only nutritious meal of the day. But I stay here, away from the sights and smells that make life unbearable these days. And the tears pour out. Because even though I know that this is temporary and is nothing compared to trials that others face, I feel emotionally weak and physically exhausted. And I wonder, how will I make it? Because I feel like dying.
Looking back now, as I’m in the 34th week of pregnancy and feeling incomparably better than I did during those miserable first 20 weeks, I am so grateful to have those difficult months behind me. But I’m also grateful for what I learned.
One of the things that helped me through that dark time was thinking about the Stockdale Paradox. It is a concept described in the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . And Others Don’t by Jim Collins, and, although a business strategy principle, it applies remarkably well to life.
The paradox is based on the experience of James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy admiral who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over seven years. Stockdale was the highest ranking leader captured, and, although tortured most brutally throughout his imprisonment, he was able to survive until his release, while many others did not.
When author Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale about his experience, Stockdale explained why he survived: “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.”
Collins then asked who it was that didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Surprisingly, Stockdale answered, “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.”
Stockdale then added, “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” (85).
In other words, just hoping you will survive is not enough; you have to actually do the hard stuff in order to get there. So, the Stockdale Paradox is the necessity of having both faith and discipline—both the optimism that you will succeed and the realistic determination to do what needs to be done. It’s a paradox because optimism—something essential to your success—can be your undoing if applied in excess or without some realism.
Isn’t this also true of motherhood?
While suffering from morning sickness, I had faith that it would end, but it was much harder to have the determination to get through it. But I tried.
Inspired by Stockdale, I confronted the facts of my then-current reality: I let people know I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my normal responsibilities, I asked friends to go grocery shopping for me, I sought out sympathy and advice from other mothers, and I let my toddler watch an embarrassing amount of TV. In short, I lowered my expectations about what I could do—by a lot.
And I’m sure it comes as no surprise: I survived!
But the challenge of pregnancy nausea pales in comparison to the more painful, uncertain, and lasting hardships in motherhood: death, divorce, infertility, chronic or terminal illness, addiction, disability, financial problems. How is it possible to have both faith and discipline during these heart-wrenching trials?
One answer comes from the book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and The Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell. In the middle of the story, Luttrell describes his rigorous and, in my opinion, ruthless training as a Navy Seal.
I haven’t read the whole book, but my husband and I did watch a TV special about Navy Seal training. I was shocked—and frankly horrified—by the things they were asked to do, including going days without sleep and performing complicated tasks underwater that are practically impossible to perform without drowning. If you came up for air, you failed. If you passed out under water, they would pull you out, resuscitate you, and you could try again.
I thought to myself, “There is no way I could ever get through that!” And there are few people who do. But Luttrell explains the key advice his training officer, Captain Maguire, gave them during training:
“Don’t let your thoughts run away with you, don’t start planning to bail out because you’re worried about the future and how much you can take. Don’t look ahead to the pain. Just get through the day, and there’s a wonderful career ahead of you” (124).
To me, this is the key to achieving the Stockdale Paradox, the key to being both optimistic and disciplined: don’t let your thoughts run away with you, don’t think about how much you can take, don’t look ahead to the pain.
Honestly, much of my suffering—and crying—during those difficult months of morning sickness came because I did let my thoughts run away with me. And I did look ahead to the pain, even though my husband often reminded me, “Take it one day at a time.” Easier said than done, right?
Somehow, if we can train our minds to think only of today—and to view getting through today as a great victory—we can have the strength to live through those long, hard struggles. And we will come out stronger, wiser, and more compassionate.
Like James Stockdale, we can make our hardest experiences into the defining events of our lives—events which, in retrospect, we would not trade.
QUESTION: In the hardest parts of your life, how do you stop yourself from looking ahead to the pain? Please comment below because we want to learn from you!
CHALLENGE: Think of a challenge you are currently facing. How can you combine both optimism and realistic determination to face your challenge? Plan a way to hold onto your confidence of ultimate success while exercising the discipline needed to face the real, day-to-day challenges you encounter.
Image by Microsoft Office Clip Art with graphics by Julie Finlayson.