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As part of never-ending efforts to deal with this pandemic, it may be time to embrace the Stockdale Paradox.

This concept, which I just learned about, is named after Jim Stockdale, a rear admiral who was held as a POW in Vietnam for seven years. Stockdale said in interviews that the most optimistic soldiers rarely survived prison, a paradoxical idea to a society that embraces the power of positive thinking.

Optimists were the people who were sure they’d be released by Christmas, then by Easter, then by autumn – until repeated disappointment crushed their spirit and “they died of a broken heart.” It was the resigned realists who survived, Stockdale said, the people who recognized that there was no certainty about their future and did the best they could, one day at a time, so they’d be ready if freedom ever did come.

There is an argument that the pandemic means the world needs to embrace the Stockdale Paradox and be resigned realists.

To thrive we’ve got to abandon the idea that we can make COVID-19 go away by the spring, by the summer, by next year. Instead we need to focus on doing the best we can to avoid the worst consequences of the disease and move ahead one day at a time.

For years to come we’re going to need widespread and continued vaccination efforts, lots of medical testing, occasional short-term limits placed on freedom of assembly, and changes in some well-established  personal and occupational practices. Nobody’s happy about any of those but that’s the way it’s going to be.

When you think about it, though, this is how the human species has always dealt with disease. We have always shaped our behavior to minimize its impact; just ask your grandparents about dealing with summertime polio scares.

Only in the last half-century have antibiotics and vaccines and public health initiatives (indoor plumbing has saved more lives than any medicine ever developed) led us to think that life free of serious illness is the norm. COVID-19 has shown that we need to be realists again.

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