Sue Wells – The New Canterbury Tales

June 16, 2011

The Stockdale Paradox and flying tomato sauce #eqnz #chch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Sue Wells @ 3:26 pm

I leapt on my teenage son on Monday afternoon.

He was on the couch. It was by the back wall. That was where I decided I wanted to be and consultation seemed rather unnecessary.

Watching the tv do a very good impression of a metronome I found my inner strength. I crawled off him about the same time as the bifold wall opened without further ado, and clutched what remains of our already munted appliance in an act of great and desperate bravery.

The children should have grateful. The lump I’d had in my stomach since Saturday, coupled with the first decent shake meant I’d ensured all our water containers had been filled with the finest chlorinated H2O Christchurch has to offer. Just as well, as our taps went dry, our loo became a large white ornament again, and electricity was just a memory.

There are rituals now that we observe almost without thinking. We check our neighbours. We hunt down the dog. We pick up broken glass and berate ourselves for not ensuring the bench is clear at all times. We shake our heads in disbelief at our stupidity for having to clean the fridge of tomato sauce not once, but twice in an hour, putting the same container covered in gladwrap on the same top shelf so that gravity can switch on and have a laugh.

I think we do that because we have a subconscious belief that the last aftershock we experience was the biggest we will have – that the worst of them is over, and that we are returning to an old steady state where the earth didn’t move under our feet on a whim. To alter where we put the sauce, to retrain ourselves to use only plastic containers, means we have somehow surrendered to a new normality so awful to contemplate that it almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

My children decided on Monday that they had a choice available to them. They had access to a house where there was water, and power, and that was better than staying at home with me. I don’t blame them for that, nor do I blame anybody who decides to take a break from our city if it’s getting too hard.

I’ve seen people in the last little while who I think have passed the point where they are coping with the ongoing distress and trauma that the physical events are causing – let alone the political events as we await the government’s retreat announcements.

I understand why the delay – I understand too the awful, awful feelings people are going through because of it. I hope the pundits are right and that the announcement will be a matter of days, not weeks – for the liquefied areas at least. For the hill dwellers the delay could be much longer. The issues there are even more complex and the decisions so very hard.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about things this week. In discussion with my friend Kim, I’ve encountered a book by Jim Collins called “From Good to Great”, and in it a piece of thinking called “The Stockdale Paradox”. If you’re not familiar the latter, google offers many insights, and I found a piece by Niall Doherty which I thinks explains it very well. (I’m not certain whether Niall has written all that I quote here or whether parts of it are quoted from elsewhere – but that’s my attribution comment and it’s the best I can offer.)

“The Stockdale Paradox is named after admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. And yet, as Stockdale told Collins, he never lost faith during his ordeal: “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.”

Then comes the paradox: While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “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.”

What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away. That self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it.

Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He knew he was in hell, but, rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners. He created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other. He developed a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. And he sent intelligence information to his wife, hidden in the seemingly innocent letters he wrote.

Collins and his team observed a similar mindset in the good-to-great companies. They labeled it the Stockdale Paradox and described it like so:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time …..

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Every Cantabrian has a different current reality. Home ownership issues, insurance, work situation, family dynamics, personal loss, stress – they’ll all be in there. We have to acknowledge them or we cannot deal with them effectively. It’s ok to say that we need help, that it’s hard – or we won’t be able to cope together. Strength is not putting on brave face and pretending it’s all over every time we have a shake. Strength is more like my (slightly adapted) Serenity Prayer.

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

For me – I’ve learnt that the best place for tomato sauce is on the bottom shelf of the fridge. I’ve learnt a bit more than that actually – but today, that’s all I’m sharing.



  1. Tommy sauce goes in the door now. I’d have everything in there if I could but sadly some things just don’t squish into a shape that fits

    Comment by timrachel — June 16, 2011 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

  2. And a lot of us have learnt that vodka is best sitting on the ground in the emergency kit. Take care Sue love your posts. I am going to put a link to this post on our Horseshoe Lake Residents Facebook page – it will help lift some of our spirits in this neck of the woods who are doing it tough.

    Comment by Janette Hinton — June 16, 2011 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

    • And wine is best not sitting in the drop zone for bloody rock book ends! Alcohol abuse is not pretty. 🙂

      Comment by Sue Wells — June 16, 2011 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  3. Stay strong Susie – this too shall pass! love you x

    Comment by kim — June 16, 2011 @ 10:58 pm | Reply

  4. Ciao bella! I’ve been thinking about you a lot in the last few days and was just about to send you a message when I saw this post. I don’t have to ask how you are (how you really are) because you’re so brave about baring your soul in you writing. And yet, at the same time, you are not just using it as a way to make yourself feel better, you are sharing your heart, thoughts, wisdom, humor and constant learning…. connecting others’ experiences to find ways to understand your current condition… and then making everyone else feel better. Brava! my friend. You are all amazing humans and I want you to know that even though it may seem like the world has forgotten your plight… there are gazillions of us out here who are inspired by you. Much love, KZ in NV

    Comment by Katherine — June 17, 2011 @ 8:36 am | Reply

    • Sweety you’re a star. Ongoing struggles need ongoing love and support and I know I’ve got both jn spades from you. Hey! 🙂 xxx

      Comment by Sue Wells — June 18, 2011 @ 2:08 pm | Reply

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