Last year I reviewed Anthony Ray Hinton’s powerful book, The Sun Does Shine. It is the autobiography of a man who spent most of his life––28 years––on death row, wrongly accused of robbery and murder. Throughout that time, he was confined in a small cell until the trial was fundamentally questioned and he was released.
What I found remarkable above all else was that this man found the resources within himself not to give up. In fact, he seemed to grow in hope. It was not a linear growth; Hinton did have his setbacks, very low moments, such as when the person dearest to him, his beloved mother, died before he could get out, hug and care for her.
However, resilience does not do justice to what the man evidenced over those years. It was something more.
Relevance to now
Our temporary loss of freedoms at this time of pandemic seem trivial in comparison with Hinton’s story. Yet there are valuable lessons to learn from his story as well as those of others in more extreme situations.
In our shared humanity, it is imperative that we each need to learn how to live and grow in hope during this pandemic, amidst all our present circumstances, its threats, the personal losses and confinements.
A Fragile Hope
Most of us seem to live from our external circumstances, and the media has an attention-seeking agenda to make it appear that these circumstances are dire. One day we hear positive news of medical breakthroughs or falling rates of COVID-19 infections; the next day, there is some more bad news.
Living from our circumstances like this, focusing on the negatives, is a fragile way to live emotionally. We become like Homer Simpson, who one moment yells, Yippee!, and the next, emotionally turns on a sixpence with a Doh!. He then repeats the cycle. This is not living with any kind of emotional intelligence. I fear that the long-term effect this has is that the negative wins and we are led into deeper depression and despair. The Yippee! becomes rarer and rated and the Doh! becomes habitual.
Should We Aim for Resilient Hope?
I have recently been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. I had assumed that the opposite of fragility is resilient.
Resilience rather is something different. In engineering, machines are made to withstand stress within certain parameters… and beyond these limits, they suddenly break. In this sense, they are designed to be resilient.
Taleb argues that there is a certain class of phenomena that are neither and that the true opposite of fragile is not resilient, rather something he calls Antifragile. It is a phenomenon we see in the natural world of something growing through the right kind of stress. He uses a number of illustrations from the medical world, such as our bones, which actually gain strength from moderately acute stress.
If we aim merely for resilient hope, it could break us emotionally.
And maybe this is what we have seen happening among many of us when it came, for example, to the New Year. Some of us caught ourselves hoping that a New Year would me a different, liberating year. 2020 had become synonymous with COVID-19 and lockdowns. We indulged ourselves with thoughts such as, Surely this New Year will be better?
And, for many of us, it just isn’t. In fact, for many of us, it is worse. Doh! doesn’t do justice to the disappointment and emotional tailspin that we might experience. For some, this has become a spiral of depression and despair to something worse.
The Stockdale Paradox
See another earlier article I wrote on Stockdale here. Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking American officer to fall into the hands of the enemy during the Vietnam War.
After seven and a half years of imprisonment and torture, Stockdale was finally released and returned to his home country.
He endured because he kept a twin perspective on his life in the camp:
- he faced the brutal reality of where he was and what he was going through; and
- he kept his focus on a future beyond the camp.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, interviewed Admiral Stockdale about his coping strategy whilst in prison. At one point Collins asked the Admiral which prisoners didn’t make it:
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. 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.
Stockdale was vehement in his denial of blind optimism. Collins stresses the common denominator of all companies making the break to greatness as being able and willing to face the brutal reality.
I believe this holds true for us as individuals, families and communities as well.
This seems to be important in developing a strong hope. It is not a hope that flies in the face of the evidence. But is does hope, and remains dogged. I’m wondering if antifragile hope builds on doggedness, but that what Stockdale has explained is not the complete picture?
Resilience is Brittle
I believe Taleb offers us something beyond the binary thinking of fragility and resilience.
I did have an email series called Resilient Hope, in fact, but Taleb has given me pause to review this work again.
Is there a kind of hope that gains under stress?
I believe there is. Hinton and Stockdale model this for us, as do others.
We find echoes of it in myths and legends, those stories we are drawn towards. For example, in Die Hard, John McClain grew in stature during the story. Whilst the police chief and the FBI were at best resilient, and McLain’s vest was fragile, our hero was revealed as antifragile. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf seems reduced to nothing in grappling with the Balrog, but emerged later even more powerful than ever. And, of course, there are the confrontations of Christ with the religious legalists, his deceptive capture, rigged trial, execution and resurrection. The hero who appears defeated in battle, rises from the ground, having learned from the stress how to endure in the fight in a different way, and goes on to become even more powerful.
And why do these stories inspire? Do they connect with some profound truth about ourselves and a better way to live through adversity?
In my earlier post, Building Something Bigger than Us, I referenced those world-changers who looked beyond even their own lifetimes towards something they started that leaves future generations with a powerful legacy.
My point is this:
Antifragile hope is functional now.
Rather than thinking like survivalists in some sort of zombie apocalypse fantasy, we can think beyond mere survival and build. Generative, antifragile hope leads us to dream bigger, connect with a purpose higher than ourselves, a transcendent purpose. Survivalism is the chronic stressful worldview of every man and woman for themselves; it is a fragile hope. Antifragile hope does not abandon our history or our future but builds. Taleb calls such people the antifragilistas. Their eyes are fixed above or beyond their immediate circumstances
Frankl and his conclusions
He who knows the why for his existence can bear almost any how.Viktor Frankl, Man’s Searcn for Meaning.
Leaders deal in the currency of meaning. They ask and attempt to offer answers to the Why question. To deny people a clear reason for the change they are going through is an abdication of leadership. How much more true is this when it comes to the matter of self-leadership?
Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, vividly demonstrates from his own experiences in a concentration camp during World War Two, how emotionally healthy it can be to connect with a greater purpose. People can deal with almost anything if they have a sufficiently good reason for doing so.
Frankl survived the horrors of the camp, in part because his hope was fixed on a hope beyond the camp, beyond his immediate circumstances. It was transcendant.
Focus on Legacy
Thinking and acting beyond our lives is humanity at its best.
During the dark days of early 1944, the British Parliament debated building a future UK, homes for heroes and its health service. This infuriated Hitler, who had hoped (resilient?) that the British would be too absorbed in their current battle to dream beyond. He was wrong.
Apart from incarceration and enduring the extremes of oppression by other human beings, what do Hinton, Stockdale and Frankl have in common? And what do they show us in our own restrictions right now?
I’d love your thoughts on this.