As I search for comfort and guidance in my healing journey, I have found some of my greatest help comes from the examples of other survivors of trauma. I would like to “introduce” you to two of my heroes: Marilyn Van Derbur and James Stockdale.
Marilyn, the self-proclaimed “quintessential tomboy” became Miss America in 1958, her sophomore year of college. She was also a survivor of childhood abuse. At the time she won the pagent, she was unaware of her past. Like so many of us, she had repressed the memories. In her book, Miss America By Day, she wrote, “I wish I had known that many--if not most—adults, sexually violated as children, are in their 40’s before they begin to deal with their childhoods. Just knowing that this is “normal” for many survivors would have helped me cope with friends and family members who were saying, ‘This happened a long time ago. Just move on with your life.’”
Like other survivors, Marilyn's well-meaning friends and loved ones, counseled her to "let go and move on." In another part of the book she explained why that is not possible. “During this time of recovery, I wasn’t remembering the memories and feelings, I was living them. When memories and feelings are split off and stuffed deeply within the body, it is necessary to disgorge them and feel them as if they are happening in real time. This was not a voluntary decision. When memories are triggered. . .the memories and feelings are instantly felt and no amount of willing them away or decision to ”-just get over it,” will work.”
That is exactly how it is for me as well. Reading her memoir was so validating. And because I knew she understood, I believed her and felt encouraged when she said there is hope: the pain ends, but you have to do the hard work."
James Stockdale and The Stockdale ParadoxVice Admiral James Stockdale, a Navy Pilot, was shot down in Vietnam and held in the Hoa Lo prison for seven years. He served part of that time in solitary confinement and was routinely tortured and beaten.
Admiral Stockdale was later interviewed about his experiences by James C. Collins, for the business book, Good to Great (which I am told is a classic). During the interview, when asked about how he survived Admiral Stockdale said:
‘I never lost faith in the end of the story, 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.”
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, 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.“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.”
Collins calls this philosophy the Stockdale Paradox.
When I am holding on, trying to deal with one hour at a time--sometimes one day at a time is too much--I remember Marilyn and Admiral Stockdale. Marilyn promises that is will get better, but I have to be willing to do the hard work. Admiral Stockdale said the same in a different way (if I may repeat):
“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.”
Sometimes there is wisdom in letting go, but as Admiral Stockdale and Marilyn Van Derbur teach us sometimes the best course is quite the opposite. It is holding on to faith in a brighter future, and fighting through the darkness until the Light comes.
Photo Attribution: George Hodan