You Always Have A Choice
by Erin Honor
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances
– Viktor Frankl; Man’s Search For Meaning
The first time I heard this quote by Holocaust survivor and philosopher, Victor Frankl, was in religion class in my junior year of high school. Now, let me just say that this was definitely not my favorite class, I also probably wasn’t always attentive during it as I should have been. However, when reading Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, when reading these words for the very first time – they were all I could think about.
Just to give a quick breakdown of the book so you understand the full extent of what he is saying here – Frankl was a prisoner in not one, not two, but three different concentration camps during World War II. This was a man who was dealt what was probably the worst hand imaginable. His book chronicles his time in the camps, but not in the way that you may think. While he definitely brings attention to the unfathomable cruelty that those in the camps face on a daily basis – he instead decided to focus on something else.
This quote by Frankl is so meaningful because out of everyone, he had one of the most valid reasons to become bitter and hateful towards the world. To give up on hope. To give up on beauty. How can this truly be a good world when people are being whipped and beaten and gassed and starved?
If you choose it to be one.
In the concentration camp, Frankl was literally stripped of every right, every ounce of dignity, every bit of humanity. He had nothing but the right to choose the way that he would allow what was happening to him effect him. He chose to find beauty in the little things – maybe a joke shared while sipping the meager ration of “broth” offered to the prisoners, the clear blue sky so vast and magnificent as he marched towards the trenches for a long day of grueling labor. To Frankl, this right, this choice to decide who you would allow your circumstances to let you become, was a matter of life or death. Give up on yourself. See the world as nothing but darkness? You lay in you bunk and allow yourself to slowly shrivel and die. Choose light? Choose to find even the smallest glimpse of beauty in the most horrific of situations? Hey. You have a shot of getting out of here alive.
And that’s just what he did.
There is no single person on this planet that never experiences any type of hardship. Loss. Grief. Trauma. Sure, some of us seem to get a little more of life’s crap thrown at us than others – but none of us get through life completely unscarred.
There are too many times where I see people being excused for treating others badly because they are “going through a hard time,” or “have been through a lot.” Now, I’m not talking about snapping at someone accidentally while having a bad day. We all do that. It’s fine. What I am talking about here is going out of your way to make other people miserable. Trying to inflict the kind of pain on others that you have felt from whatever event(s) has/have occurred own life.
There is always a choice. No matter how hard and bad and ugly life gets – there is always a choice in the way that you react to it. The person that it makes you become.
Here’s a story for you –
When I was in middle-school a friend of a friend (who I had only met once) texted me telling me how I was a waste of space, how no one would ever loved me, how I was a “masochistic martyr bitch” (to this day I still am unsure of what that meant), how everyone would be happier if I killed myself, blah blah blah.
To be perfectly honest, this didn’t effect me once. Maybe it was because I was already majorly depressed and just accepted everything she said as the truth without batting an eye – or maybe it was that this girl had met me once. This wasn’t about me. It was about her.
I remember talking to my dad about it. I was so confused. He told me how the girl’s dad had died a few years prior and, because of that, it was effecting her in a way that allowed her to act like that.
This both confused and troubled me. I never really understood the reasoning of “He/She has been through a lot” for treating others as though they are nothing. I understand that bitterness, anger, resentment – these are all easy to feel when life beats you to the ground. Trust me, I know this all too well. It is easy to allow yourself to stay in your misery and to want to bring all those around you that you perceive as happy down to your level. I get that. I do.
I just don’t understand why this is seen as okay behavior.
In my eyes, in even the darkest of situations, you are in control. Yes, life throws things at you over which you have no control. You do, however, have control over both your response to it and how you allow it to change and form you as a person. You have the power to take the worst of the worst and allow it to make you better. You have the power to let the amount of darkness you have experienced allow you to see how much light there is. You have the ability to let all that is gone and lost to allow yourself to see and find a newfound appreciation for what is here and gained. You always have that power.
Now, this isn’t easy. Like I said earlier, it is a lot easier to let life defeat you. To become bitter and angry. When you allow yourself to be angry at everyone and everything in this world – you avoid dealing with the real issues. You’re not really angry at your friend for going to that party without you. No. You’re angry at your dad for leaving you at a time that you needed him most. Of course you won’t admit that; you probably won’t even know it. So you lash out and then use the excuse of your having “been through a lot.” But what you’ve been through isn’t what is causing you to lash out – your attitude towards what you’ve been through is.
It’s easier to let yourself sit in a room with all the lights off, convinced that the world is a horrible place and that there is no point in trying to pick yourself up and go back out into it. Yeah. It’s so much easier.
And so unfulfilling.
The hard stuff is turning on the lights. Allowing it in. Allowing yourself to see past all of the ugliness that you have experienced and see all the beauty that this world has to offer. It’s hard to let yourself be there for the problems of others and accepting them instead of internally grumbling about how you have been through so much worse. The hard stuff is allowing yourself to heal. To move on. To begin to slowly tear yourself away from the person you lost, the illness you had, the hardships you experienced. It is hard to allow yourself to see yourself not as a victim in need of attention and consolation but as the one there to give the attention and consolation. It is hard to allow yourself to let go of being the one that everyone panders to because you have “been through a lot.” It’s hard to allow yourself to just be normal. To not be the one who has been through a lot – but to be the one who has been through just as much as everyone else. It’s hard and it sucks a lot of the time. There are so many times where people treat me normally and I want to scream “Wait! Don’t forget about me! I have an eating disorder! Remember? My dad died! Remember?” It’s scary to allow yourself to be whole and healed after you have spent so much of your life as being the broken one.
But you’re not the broken one anymore. You are the one who took the hardships in your life, regardless of what they were, and accepted them. You have not only accepted that you have not had it as hard as some, but also that you have had it harder than others (I guilt trip myself a lot with this since I don’t really think I’ve been through a lot). You have detached this from your identity. You have de-specialized it. You have stopped it from being your story – it’s only a single chapter in the book of your life;
And you get to choose how the rest will be written.