Last week, I took the time to watch a lecture (sadly, I cannot yet find a recording of it, although one exists somewhere).
It’s not something I normally do. Video is linear, and unlike reading you can’t skim or skip to the end. I didn’t want to in this case, however; I was interested in the speaker and I was curious about what they had to say.
Ed Yong has been one of the most significant journalistic voices reporting on the pandemic, an accomplishment for which he garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 2021. More importantly, his contributions have been profound, deep, disturbing, , candid and essential to making sense of what we have all individually and collectively gone through in the past two-and-a-bit years. (If you’ve not yet read any of his work, I encourage you to invest the time immersing yourself).
While reading his writing has not always been easy, writing it has been arguably harder. Yong has been honest and open about the mental challenges that he has experienced, the value of finding a really good therapist, and the question of exactly how much longer he can go on doing this (the short answer being: “I can’t keep doing this indefinitely. But I know I can do it for a bit longer. And I’m grateful to my wife, editor, and therapist–the three pillars propping up my mental health.”)
What I applaud is the way he pours himself in to the work that he does. After he published a story on grieving those who have been lost in the pandemic—and the trying exercise that has been—he has made a point of responding to everyone who has shared their experience of loss with him on Twitter. There have been hundreds, and he has endeavoured to not only directly acknowledge each one, but to encourage the sharing.
It was the end of his talk that I found most relevant to what I want to share today, however. The challenge for all of us has been how to keep going. It has been a slog, one that many want to simply put behind us (except the pandemic has not gone away, and it is not going away, and our attempts to deny its existence only serve to reinforce and escalate infections).
Yong related the story of the Stockdale Paradox, which originally appeared in Jim Collins’ Good to Great. Adm. James Stockdale was the highest ranking US military officer in the Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. He was tortured more than twenty times in 8 years. He endured misery and uncertainty, and yet persevered. Those who did not, according to Stockdale, were the optimists. The ones who would say “we’ll be out by Christmas” and yet it would pass; the ones who eventually died of despair and broken hearts.
What kept Stockdale going—and the heart of the paradox for which he is credited—is a sense of hope that he would eventually be released, balanced with a very pragmatic view of his current reality. As quoted by Collins, he said, “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.”
That is a difficult tension to manage. It is also an incredibly important one. The facts of our current reality are brutal, and they are not being experienced equally. Whether the pandemic, war in the Ukraine or the gleeful restricting of rights by a populist movement whose influence seems to grow unchecked, there is a great deal to despair about the world. It is specifically true when it seems the checks and balances that are supposed to make the system work are failing, and those at the apex of the pyramid are left to their own devices with no one to constrain their basest and most inhumane instincts.
The challenge of navigating this tension is two-fold.
First, you have to pay attention to the brutal facts. Let’s be honest, here. That’s hard to do. It is much easier to look away from bad news than to pay attention to it, when you can—or feel like you can—do so very little about it. To bear witness to the truth (a term that traces itself back to Victor Klemperer’s secret diaries of being a Jew in Nazi Germany, here and here) is an extraordinarily difficult and nonetheless important act.
The need to pay attention is true if for no other reason than it gives you the tools to process, to explain—and perhaps to argue and persuade—about what is going on, and why, and the impacts that it is having. Looking away in the face of horror is what tyrants want you to do; it’s why control of the media is sought, journalists are vilified and the truth is branded as lies. Denying the truth is the first step to downplaying the truth, minimizing its impact and consequence and ultimately pretending that it never happened.
This leads us to our second challenge, which is to maintain faith that you—or us, or society as a whole—will ultimately prevail. That hope will out, that good will ultimately triumph and that this too shall pass. In the depths of horrific and brutal, it is difficult to believe that. Despite this, as Stockdale asserts, it is a mindset that you can never afford to lose.
This isn’t to advocate for blind optimism. In Stockdale’s view, that’s what gets you killed, and I’m inclined to agree with him on that. But belief in a positive outcome—even if it requires enduring an altogether less-than-pleasant present—is an essential ingredient for success. Maintaining a positive stance is one of the essential ingredients of emotional intelligence. It is a core mindset of many people that flourish. Belief in the possibility of success means you keep trying, even in the face of adversity and roadblocks.
Keeping trying in the face of adversity is the point. It is entirely the point. You need to recognize the adversity for what it is (and there is no point diminishing or ignoring it, because that ultimately makes the experience more painful and difficult than is strictly necessary). You also need to persist in your efforts, and creatively seek alternative strategies when your initial approaches fail to pan out in the way that you imagined.
In discussing this, I’m reminded of the work of Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist who was one of the originators of ego psychology, and who famously gave us the phrase “identity crisis.” His theory of development suggested that at each successive stage of development of people as we move to adulthood, we are presented with psychosocial crises (conflicts between ourselves as individual and society around us) that have the potential to have a positive or negative impact on our development.
A paper that came across my radar just this morning is perhaps one of the first to provide empiric evidence for his arguments about the developmental stage of generativity, which is where we theoretically reach the maturity of middle adulthood (our productive years). Erikson’s theory of generativity is that we find maturity in engaging with purpose, and through the creation of positive impacts that will outlast us.
Generativity is where we do the difficult work of transcending our own existence, and giving back to the world around us. It theoretically has three pillars: maintaining the systems of the world and society, aiding the next generation and creating a tangible legacy that makes the world a better place (in whatever manner that might present itself). The consequence of not doing so was stagnation, feeling uninvolved and disconnected from our communities and society as a whole.
Arguably many of the challenges that we are facing today run headlong into the idea of generative growth. The systems of the world are being attacked and undermined. Children are feeling disillusioned, disengaged and lost, and more than a little fearful about what the future holds. It can feel very hard to do anything that makes a difference.
Yet make a difference we must, or at least try. Giving up won’t get us anywhere. Blind optimism is contestably worse. If we want to have a future, we need hope. We need cautious optimism. We absolutely need pragmatism. We need to pay attention to what is going on. And we need to be willing to do something about it.
One of my very favourite quotes (from Garry Shandling, no less) appeared in Esquire’s “The Meaning of Life” column back in 2007; it’s stuck with me since: “Nice guys finish first. If you don’t know that , then you don’t know where the finish line is.” It’s a surprisingly profound point. No matter how bad a situation—or how horrifically someone is abusing their power and position—there is always a second act. Or a third. Or a fourth. Sometimes a fifth.
We need to keep having hope. And we need to keep being pragmatic about it.