My senior year of college I played a football game at undefeated, and nationally ranked, Boston College. My team was definitely the underdog. We hadn’t had a winning season in 4 years, but at half time we actually had the lead. In the 2nd half the scoring was back and forth, and at the end of the 4th quarter the game was tied, so the game went into overtime.
In the first overtime we missed a field goal but so did Boston college, so the game went into double overtime. But Boston College had a future NFL MVP at quarterback named Matt Ryan. He threw a touchdown pass in the 2nd overtime that clinched the win for Boston college.
We lost the game, but we had come much closer to winning than expected. And that felt pretty good, especially given how bad we’d been the last few years. But at our first team meeting after the game our head Coach Bronco Mendenhall was feeling anything but good. “Don’t for a second think you are just as good or better than Boston College” he said. “You’re not. You guys are feeling good that you almost won? Face the brutal facts, we lost. Don’t go telling yourselves that that was some moral victory for us. Our goal was to win, and we lost. Those are the facts.” And that was essentially the meeting.
The facts were that we needed to get better. And had we lied to ourselves, settled for our performance, not held ourselves accountable for our performance, and believed that we were just as good as Boston College I don’t think we would have pushed ourselves as hard as we did for the remainder of the season. That game, and that meeting, was a turning point for us. We went on to win our next 10 games of the season and finished nationally ranked, even ahead of Boston College.
The phrase “face the brutal facts” didn’t originate with Mendenhall though. He learned it…from Jim Stockdale, the Stanford Professor and former prisoner of war. For eight years Stockdale was a POW in Vietnam…with no release date set and no certainty that he’d ever see his family again.
Over the course of his eight years as a prisoner he was tortured over 20 times. At one point he even beat and cut himself so that he couldn’t be put on videotape as an example of a well-treated prisoner. Years after his release, he still walked with a limp as a result of the torture. When asked how he survived, Stockdale said that he never lost faith in the end of the story. He always believed that he would get out some day. But when asked who didn’t get out, he responded, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”
“The optimists wouldn’t face the facts. We’ll be out by Christmas” they’d say. But then Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, “We’ll be out by Easter. But then Easter would come and go too. And then Thanksgiving. And then it was Christmas again. And ultimately the optimists died of a broken heart.”
This is a very important lesson, Stockdale said, “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.”
Facing the brutal facts is not new advice however. Buddhists have been admonishing people to face the brutal facts for 1000s of years.
But why does this matter. Why should we face the facts? An unwillingness or inability to face the facts, called delusion in Buddhism, is one of the three causes of all human suffering. For one, delusion creates a loss of connection with reality. It can lead us to ignore facts and cling to opinions that are wrong or harmful. For example, a few years ago, I attended a controversial academic presentation. After the presentation one my classmates said to me, “I don’t believe any of that stuff, even if it is true. Cause I don’t want it to be true.”
My classmate had chosen to live in self-imposed delusion, refused to admit facts just because she didn’t want the facts to be true. Living in delusion is living in blindness. It’s like the guy driving on the freeway when he hears a safety alert, “If you’re driving north on the interstate be careful. There is a man driving the wrong way. “The man gets frustrated and says, ‘There’s not just one car driving the wrong way, there’s hundreds.’”
If we refuse to accept the brutal facts, we haven’t changed the facts. As Zen Buddhists say, “If you understand, things are just as they are. If you don’t understand, things are still just as they are.” Delusion forces us to make decisions based on a fantasy. And we can’t possibly expect to make the best decisions possible in fantasy land.
Delusion also assumes weakness, that we are incapable of facing reality. Facing the facts, on the other hand, requires courage, and allows us to confront reality and deal with it.
And in the case of Jim Stockdale, he believed that facing the facts had life and death consequences. Ben Franklin’s advice to “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterwards” is good advice. But I think the better advice is to keep our eyes wide open during marriage as well, but to love our spouses anyway.
The brutal fact is that no one is perfect. Not our spouses, not our parents, not our friends, not us. The brutal fact is that people will hurt you, and not everyone will like you. Life isn’t fair.
Bad things happen to good people. And you’re going to die someday. Those are the brutal facts.
But that’s okay. Be strong. Be courageous. Face the brutal facts. We must never confuse faith that we will prevail in the end—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality.
It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.
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