Note: this is adapted from a Twitter thread and Facebook post I made that got shared around a lot.
It may feel like it’s a good idea to tell someone who’s struggling, “Don’t worry, it will all be over by May!” That’s actually the WORST thing you can say. Here’s why, and here’s what you can say instead.
People who survive crises and come through stronger aren’t unbridled optimists. They are “pragmatic optimists.” They believe they will survive, but they also keep the reality of the situation in mind. This is called the Stockdale Paradox.It’s named after Admiral Jim Stockdale. He survived years at Hỏa Lò Prison. (The rough translation from the Vietnamese is “Hell’s Hole.” Americans imprisoned there called it the “Hanoi Hilton.”)
Later he was asked who didn’t survive. He said it was the people who believed, “We’ll be out by Christmas!” When Christmas came and went and they were still being tortured, they lost hope, and many of them died.
Stockdale had a different mindset. He said, “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.”
But he didn’t put an end date on it. Which was for the best, because he was imprisoned for nearly 8 years. (He was also tortured, beaten, kept in leg shackles, had his leg broken twice, and once slit his wrists in order to avoid betraying his fellow prisoners. And that’s just a little of what he went through.)
For most of us, being under lockdown is nowhere near as awful as what Stockdale and his fellow prisoners went through. Some domestic violence victims are probably suffering similar brutality. And essential workers who don’t have PPEs are suffering a different kind of torture.
But for many of us, the biggest challenge is being socially isolated. Humans are by nature social creatures. It’s the reason that solitary confinement is a brutal punishment, and some people in solitary go mad. We have Facetime and Google Hangouts and Zoom, but it’s not the same as being in the same room with someone.
Don’t say to your struggling friends, “It’ll all be back to normal by May!” That’s not realistic. Instead, focus on the fact that they will get through. It will be difficult, but they will get through it.
If you’re struggling, you will get through this. You know you may lose loved ones in the next few weeks, so make sure now that they know that you love them. You may struggle financially, so look at ways you can band together with other people to get help for yourself and your community.
Be kind to each other. Look out for one another. You can use what you learn here to become a better person. And maybe you can use what you learn to build a better community, and a better country.