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Responding to Adversity

I’ve heard countless stories from friends, co-workers and clients about how COVID-19 has already affected their lives. These include stories of people losing their jobs, small businesses forced to close their doors and lay-off employees, and working parents struggling to find care for small children who are suddenly at home. My family and I are no exception.

Of course, disruptions are not new – even our best plans seem to get interrupted. The difference now is the swiftness and magnitude of the disruption. And we all seem to be trying, without much success, to answer the same question, “When will things get back to normal?”

We don’t know how long this is going to last.

As I have tried to gain perspective on the current situation, I am drawn to a principle that was demonstrated by one of my heroes, James Stockdale, “Face the brutal facts but never give up hope.”

The context of Stockdale’s quote comes from what he observed and experienced as a POW in Vietnam. Stockdale was the senior naval officer for a group of prisoners who suffered torture and deprivation over a period of several years. Stockdale found it was harmful for prisoners to engage in false hope – believing without evidence they would be released by a certain date (next Christmas or Easter, for example). Prisoners who cultivated false hope were repeatedly disappointed, became severely depressed, and were less likely to make it out alive.

Stockdale’s survivors, on the other hand, faced the brutal facts of their situation and refused to engage in false hope. And yet they believed they would prevail in the end. This second part is key – they remained hopeful despite the reality of the situation, not because they convinced themselves their situation was better than it really was.

We do have control over how we respond.

People are legitimately anxious about what the future holds, and I never want to minimize that. However, the secret to resiliency is seeing reality for what it is while remaining positive and focused on what we can control. It also means being brutally honest about what we do and don’t know.

The brutal facts of this pandemic are we do not know how much damage it will do, how long it will last, when we will return to normal and what the world will be like when it is over. Refuse to engage in false hope but instead maintain an unwavering belief we will prevail in the end. This hope will lead to positive actions that help us navigate through our current challenges.

We also have an opportunity to reframe what’s happening, to find a higher purpose.

This leads me to my final point. I believe hope can be derived from finding a higher purpose in adversity. If we choose to do so, we can reframe how we look at this situation and learn and grow from it. We may even find it possible to say months from now, “I am better because of this experience.” Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, cites research that backs this up from the International Committee for the Study of Victimization. The research he cited was from a study of people who suffered serious adversity (cancer patients and prisoners of war, for example). The purpose of the study was to better understand resiliency – why some people bounce back better than others.

We can reframe our suffering by finding a higher purpose in what's happening. In doing so we redefine hope, keeping us focused on what is truly most important.

The research showed that sufferers fell generally into three categories: 1) those who were permanently dispirited by the event, 2) those who got their life back to normal, and 3) those who used the experience as a defining event that made them stronger.

Those in the third category demonstrated resiliency. Not content to ruminate about how bad things were or even get back to normal life, they reframed the suffering as an opportunity to make themselves stronger. They made a choice to see a higher purpose in their suffering, and this choice served to increase their hope.

My personal goal is to do just that, by asking myself, “How can I use this time as an opportunity to learn and grow, get stronger, and live more aligned with my purpose?” My sincere hope is the same will also be true for you.


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