Hope and fear must co-exist. They are not mutually exclusive. We are not faced with a choice between the two, but an opportunity to integrate two opposites – to achieve a third way.
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” These were the words in 1933 that a newly elected President FDR offered to a nation reeling from the depths of the greatest economic contraction in the country’s history. It was a timely reminder to a proud country that there were better days ahead. A much-needed call for hope in a time of despair. Such is the elliptical pattern of history. A stabilizing energy that slowly swings from hope to fear and back again in an almost perfect dance with the prevailing conditions at any given time. FDR’s hope was replaced by the fear of communism following WWII and the rapid build-up of the military industrial complex. Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” election-eve speech in 1980 ushered in two decades of optimism for a country exhausted by the ravages of uncontrolled inflation, war, and social strife. The events of 9/11 and the economic collapse of 2008 saw, yet again, the return of fear. A condition ultimately seized upon and promulgated by a new president, notwithstanding his promise to “make America great again.”
Today, we sit at a crossroads. As the map below illustrates, we are a country in the throes of despair and stagnation - the inevitable result of an excess of fear. The predictable response would be the call for hope as a solution to this problem. To do so would be understandable and helpful, at least in the short-term. It would bring stability to an unsettled nation. However, it would unintentionally continue the pattern that has persisted for centuries. Unguarded hope ultimately gives way to danger and cynicism, which, in turn, points to a need for the vigilance and safety that comes from fear. Too much fear produces the very conditions we face today. Instead of a reflexive call for hope, what is needed is a recognition that hope and fear must co-exist. That they are not mutually exclusive. We are not faced with a choice between the two, but an opportunity to integrate two opposites – to achieve a third way.
This is the Stockdale paradox. Admiral James Stockdale, imprisoned for over seven years in the Vietnam War, observed after his release that his fellow POWs who ultimately survived had the capacity both to be hopeful that they would be released and to accept the practical reality of the bleakness of their situation. Those that held only hope or only despair perished. So too for individuals, families, communities, and nations today.
In listening to President Biden’s inaugural speech, I couldn’t help but notice his attempt to integrate the need for hope with the reality of our dark hour. It was a speech that pointed to possibility and growth while acknowledging the need to staying vigilant to the very real dangers we face. Let’s hope that such wisdom transcends the words of an inaugural address. Most importantly, I am reminded of my own responsibility to integrate this healthy tension. How can I continue to project the shining light of optimism into my family, my community, and my professional endeavors, while staying grounded in the reality of the very complex and challenging issues that we face together?
The work of Barry Johnson heavily influences my thinking and writing on paradox and polarities. I highly recommend his latest book, And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. In particular, here is a free link to Chapter 7 of the book, which discusses polarities at the national level. It’s outstanding.
How do we unify a country that is so divided? This is the central question raised in an interesting article in the Atlantic, “Coexistence Is the Only Option.”
A quote I’ve been reflecting on lately. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” Epictetus