January 19, 2021

Recognizing Reality While Choosing Enduring Optimism

Dr. Martin Luther King (LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto)

On Monday, Jan. 18, the University of Virginia kicked off its annual two-week commemoration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. MLK weekend is usually an eventful time for my family, full of volunteerism and activities. My husband, Toby, and Dr. King are both members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Toby is the financial officer of his local chapter’s foundation, which annually hosts the MLK – Unity Breakfast in Lexington, KY, for over 2,000 people. This year, it was 100% virtual and shown on a local television station. Additionally, my sister, who is a Presbyterian pastor, like so many other ministers, marks the Sunday before MLK Day as Civil Rights Sunday. In her church, like many across the country this year, the life and legacy of Representative John Lewis were front and center.

When reflecting on the civil rights movement of the ’60s, I am always amazed by the enduring optimism that the participants possessed. This optimism is something that is a hallmark of Americans in general. We tend to recognize that things are not as good as they could be, but we seem to retain a level of hopefulness that allows us to continue a progression to a system, life, and circumstance that are better than the one we have at this moment. This optimism is in many ways reflected in the Stockdale Paradox, a label originally coined by Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great.

Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner of war from 1965 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. Collins interviewed Stockdale, asking him how he made it through the ordeal. Stockdale responded:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “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 inquired:

“Who didn’t make it out?” “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “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.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “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.”

While Collins uses the Stockdale Paradox to describe how organizations implement productive changes, it strikes me that it is also applicable to the optimism of civil rights leaders like King and Lewis. Take King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. If you have not listened to that speech in a while, it is worth revisiting. There is a compelling shift in oration that occurs when, in response to Mahalia Jackson’s prompting that King should tell them about the dream, he says the following:

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These words are as true today as they were in 1963. This enduring optimism in which we see a brighter day and a better way that is wrapped in the reality of the prevailing environment in which we live is an enduring truth that is analogous to the Stockdale Paradox. The holding of faith—the substance of things hoped for—when the environment around you is contradictory—is a characteristic that is deeply rooted in the DNA of humankind. It is what sustains companies that move from good to great, universities that move from great to good, and individuals like King and Lewis who move from ordinary to historic.

For the remainder of this month, members of the UVA community will be washed in the life and legacy of King. As we transition back to the academic calendar in February, we will do so with a faith that the next academic year will be better. This faith exists alongside our reality of the challenges both known and unknown that are on the horizon. Like Stockdale and King, we are okay with saying that what we hope for is not going to materialize immediately, and we can deal with that because we have faith that it will come to pass, and when it does, we will all be the better for it.

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