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Patience during a pandemic: What we can learn from a POW and a Roman slave-turned-philosopher

Illustration by Alex Cochran

SALT LAKE CITY — After being shot down over Vietnam in 1965, Navy fighter pilot James Stockdale spent 7.5 years in the Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” enduring repeated episodes of torture, leg irons that sliced into his skin and four years in isolation.

Yet Stockdale kept a routine that included hundreds of pushups while shackled and devised an elaborate communication system between prisoners to boost morale.

Traffic and cyclists move through the street, passing the building formerly known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” in March, 1977, where U.S. prisoners of war were detained in Hanoi, North Vietnam, during the Vietnam War.
Peter Arnett, Associated Press

He returned home in 1973 a war hero.

“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 later told Jim Collins, who recorded their conversation in his book, “Good to Great.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since Collins coined the phrase, “The Stockdale Paradox” to illustrate the seeming tug of war between hope and reality — yet the conversation has never been more pertinent, nor the ability to patiently persevere so important.

Each day the nation looks for signs that it is flattening the curve — an epidemiological way to describe a reduction in new COVID-19 cases and reduced pressure on the health care system. We’re keeping our distance from friends and loved ones and washing our hands more than ever.

Neighbors Louise Jones, left, and Cheryl Doty, right, look for art while practicing social distancing during a walk of the nearly empty streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Neighbors Louise Jones, left, and Cheryl Doty, right, look for art while practicing social distancing during a walk of the nearly empty streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 56% of Americans don’t expect to resume their regular routines until after July 1, yet others are still using the hashtag #30moredays and making plans for May and June, eager to get back to business as usual.

“Someone who is hanging onto the idea that it’ll all be over in 30 days time sounds like someone who actually hasn’t come up with the coping strategies to survive on a daily basis in the new situation,” said John Sellars, a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. “Stockdale’s approach was to come up with a way of actually functioning in the circumstances in which he found himself so he could deal with that day in, day out, for as long as it went on.”

That’s now the task for the country — to deal with the new stay-at-home reality for as long as it takes.

After all, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading epidemiological voice, repeatedly says, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.

The need for patience

When compared with its more active cousins like grit and self-control, patience is often seen as passive, weak or someone becoming a “doormat,” said Sarah Schnitker, an associate professor of psychology at Baylor University who studies this virtue.

In reality, patience takes significant work and effort, but it’s quieter and less sweaty than determination or strength.

The Latin root of the word patience means “to suffer,” and Schnitker’s working definition for patience is the “ability to be calm in the face of adversity, frustration or suffering for something beyond the self.”

But that’s difficult in normal circumstances — let alone during a pandemic.

We grow tired of our chronic illnesses or mental health challenges, we’re frustrated by traffic or a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and we get irritated by the foibles of friends and family.

Lives are on warp speed, with lightning-fast internet, instant downloads and day-later Amazon deliveries.

When suffering or discomfort happens, our general approach is “let’s just escape it,” said Schnitker. We want a pill, a quick fix to avoid the suffering, the waiting.

She said when we can’t avoid it, we become impatient. But impatience doesn’t just manifest itself as angry, belligerent people. The other side to impatience are those who become so despondent at the desired results not happening in the expected timeframe that they lose heart and give up, said Schnitker.

In Stockdale’s world, these were the POWs who didn’t make it.

Rear Adm. James B. Stockdale
U.S. Navy

He called them the optimists — those who believed “‘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.”

The goal is to stay in the middle. Not getting angry or despondent, but staying calm and persistent, accepting the uncertainty gracefully for as long as it takes.

“Patience is not minimizing the pain,” said Schnitker. “It’s holding the pain.”

Dichotomy of control

Stockdale’s pain began soon after he ejected from his burning airplane.

As he floated down to the little village street in North Vietnam he whispered to himself, “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”

Epictetus (pronounced Epic-teet-us) was a first century crippled-Roman-slave-turned-Stoic-philosopher who taught that the Stoic has separate files in his mind — one file for “things that are within his power” and a second file for “things that are beyond his power,” which things will doom him to “fear and anxiety” if he worries about them, Stockdale said in a speech in 1993.

In the 30 seconds before he landed and was pounced on by more than a dozen waiting Vietnamese soldiers, Stockdale accepted that soon nearly everything would be outside of his control — even his own body.

But his opinions, judgments and attitude, his grief and joy? Those feelings and emotions were entirely within his control.

Visitors stand behind a bust of Marcus Aurelius pictured at the Albertinum, a museum of the Dresden State Art Collection in Dresden, Germany, on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Jens Meyer, Associated Press

This is the key of Stoicism, the ancient philosophy most commonly associated with Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca — and the life force that kept Stockdale alive and sane while in captivity.

Our happiness then lies in focusing on what we can control and taking the rest as it comes, said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City College of New York and author of “How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve also heard the Christian serenity prayer, written many years later by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Stoicism has been gaining in popularity for several years, Pigliucci said, but there’s been a noticeable uptick in interest over the past few weeks — at least based how many interview requests he’s received.

People are realizing that the ancients — who themselves lived through plagues, earthquakes and war and felt like they had very little control over their own lives — might have a few good ideas on how to handle our current situation.

In fact, the ancients may have been even better at dealing with tragedies that required protracted bouts of patience, said Anthony Long, a professor of classics emeritus and professor of the Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley, who had numerous conversations with Stockdale about his experiences in Vietnam.

“Since the industrial revolution and modern technology, we’ve got the illusion that we’re able to sort of master nature,” Long said. Yet this pandemic is proving that the ordinary world of biology is still far more powerful than we are — no matter how much we try to bend it to our desired timelines.

Rather than wasting energy fighting against or fearing nature, Stoics embrace the unpredictableness of the world and our inevitable mortality, yet emphasize the need to be strong and steadfast in the things they can control in the moment.

It’s a recognition that the “goodness or badness of your life will ultimately depend on how you react to things,” said Long.

James Stockdale, running mate of Independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, is seen during the vice presidential debates, Oct. 13, 1992, in Washington.
Greg Gibson, Associated Press

While Stockdale’s example is the gold standard, here’s another small one.

Pigliucci, reached by phone in Brooklyn to discuss Stoicism, said he discovered his fridge, though not his freezer, had stopped working that morning — an unpleasant situation in normal times, let alone during a pandemic.

Instead of getting upset, he and his wife simply looked at each other and said, “OK, what can we do about this?”

They checked the fridge for obvious problems, then called their landlady to report it. In the meantime they resolved to eat more frozen vegetables and pasta — all things within their control.

By the time of the interview, the landlady had already promised a new fridge.

“That’s the way it works,” Pigliucci said. “Instead of getting upset and going in unproductive directions, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘what is actionable?’”

How to be patient

Patience, like a muscle, can be strengthened and developed.

First, Schnitker suggests labeling your emotions. Naming feelings helps you assert power over them, rather than feeling powerless.

Second, reframe your situation without denying the reality.

Instead of saying, “I’m stuck at home and terrified,” she suggests something like, “This feels scary, but I’m choosing to stay home so I can protect other people.”

As a psychiatrist, Judith Orloff sees patients who catastrophize about the future and make up wish-fulfillment stories because things aren’t happening fast enough for them.

They sound like children in the backseat of the family van whining, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

“You can’t do that,” she admonishes. “It will resolve, but it might not be in the time frame people are hoping for at present. Patience allows you to take a deep breath and say, ‘I’m going to enjoy my life, I’m going to be grateful for people I love and every moment of life and be patient with the resolution of the virus curve.’”

She encourages meditation: start with five minutes and focus on breathing and centering your thoughts, in addition to connecting with a higher power or praying for additional patience and support.

Think of this as flattening your own psychological curve to stave off a mental health disaster, said Greg Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today. Become realistic about your prospects without falling into despair.

None of this removes all pain and worry.

Schnitker herself worries about her husband who works at a nursing home. But because she chooses not to dwell on those worries, but rather looks toward a deeper sense of meaning and a purpose for her suffering — her patience — it makes things easier.

This sense of purpose may come from religion, or shared communal or cultural values — however we “make meaning of suffering,” she said.

It may help to remember difficult situations overcome in the past, or examples of patience from family members or friends, she said. For children or teens who don’t yet have a treasure box of memories to rely on, parents and caregivers can share stories of people who patiently overcame, and how they found meaning in the process.

Consider the story of Hercules, an ancient mythical figure who was given monstrously large tasks — many also involving actual monsters.

“If you took away all the monsters and just allowed him to live in luxury, curled up under a warm blanket, he wouldn’t really be Hercules anymore,” said Donald J. Robertson, a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist and author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.” “How could he be a hero without monsters to fight?”