Sustenance for The Spirit
One of my sons was a pole vaulter in junior high and high school. Through the experience of supporting him in this unique sport, I learned a few things. I learned to make healthy gelatin yogurt snacks. I learned when to shut my eyes, along with celebrating inwardly with great relief. (In this culture, any celebrations were conducted with humility and grace, even when you really wanted to do an outward happy dance and shout a loud “Woohoo!”) I also learned something about the strategy involved. Since each vaulter is only given three “misses,” and energy may need to be reserved for the highest possible vaults, the vaulter has to decide when to come into the competition, and the vaulter can “pass” on any height. The vaulters would sit or lie around casually, alongside their poles with their “fan” group, while assessing each other and making decisions based on what they felt were their most optimal opportunities for a medal. Once they came into the competition at a certain height, each miss counted and each new height was evaluated carefully. One or two strategically placed successful vaults could earn a top place in the final results.
In this sport, there is a paradox of calmness and excitement, and setting the bar is huge. I recently became aware of “The Stockdale Paradox,” which reminded me of the pole vaulting days. Admiral Stockdale was taken prisoner in the Vietnam War, and held for seven years. He was tortured many, many times and endured an ordeal that we don’t want to even try to imagine. He survived and lived a happy life after assimilating, but what he learned is now being quoted and promoted as great advice through any adversity, like a pandemic. Here is one of his most popular quotes:
“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.”
He was interviewed by a writer, Jim Collins, who compiled the wisdom of Admiral Stockdale, and included it into a bestseller, From Good to Great. The paradox is created as Mr. Stockdale explains that his fellow POW’s who were optimistic did not fare so well because they were always looking for a set time that it would all be over. For example, they would talk about being free “by Christmas” or other holiday. Mr. Stockdale emphasizes a continual faith while acknowledging the reality of the situation. My takeaway is that each moment is what we have, and we must believe in a time of respite and relief, and not try to manage when and where the outcome will be. In pole vaulting terms, we must take each height of the bar as it comes, make the best decisions we can to get over the bar and hope we don’t have too many misses to earn points or a medal.
It reminds me of Joseph in his pit. I don’t know what he was thinking exactly, but between the dreams that could be called visions from God, and the favoritism he was often shown, I like to think that he spent time conversing with God, knowing there was going to be an outcome consistent with God’s plan for his life. As Joseph was sold and carted off to Egypt, he continued a faith journey, fulfilling his role to redeem his family and an entire nation.
Paul found himself in prison multiple times. He was beaten and tortured. Yet he continued to be sustained by faith, as is evident in multiple books in the New Testament. None are possibly more profound on this topic than Philippians, where we find his well-known statement, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 2:21) In chapter two Paul continues, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:…” and goes on to explain the suffering and humility Christ endured. (Philippians 2:5) In 3:7 Paul says, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He goes on to encourage readers to “press on toward the goal” (Philippians 3:13) but perhaps some of his best advice, which resonates the “Stockdale Paradox,” is found in 3:18–19,
“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,”(NIV)
Keeping our minds on the ultimate prize seems to be pretty important, even when we are enduring what feels like endless trouble. We must not be sucked into earthly end-points as reward. There is but one real reward. We must weigh each height of the bar as we proceed through life, knowing that as much as we desire to soar over, we must calmly approach and keep our energy with God and His power to set us free. We must operate in the here and now, not counting on any future earthly outcome. We may hope, and we may work toward improvement, but we must accept the immediate wins/losses with grace and gratitude. Like Admiral Stockdale and Paul, let’s not make plans to celebrate “when this is over,” but praise each day lived in God’s presence.
Have a wonderful day!