Choosing our Attitude – An Enduring Freedom in Difficult Times
The global pandemic has impacted everyone and with so many things beyond our control, we can feel as though we have been strapped into an emotional roller coaster that we never wanted to ride. Understandably, feelings of pessimism and hopelessness may arise and, at times, we can feel lost in the uncertainty.
However, one thing that remains within our control is our attitude. No matter how bleak things may seem, we can always benefit from reflecting on the outlook we choose. Writers, philosophers and spiritual leaders have long contemplated the profound influence of attitude. We can take solace from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who remarked that: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” There is also great wisdom in American theologian, Reinnhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer that encourages us to: “Accept what we cannot change, have courage to change the things we can and have the wisdom to know the difference.”
The memoirs of holocaust survivors, Victor Frankl and Edith Egers offer us further valuable insight into how our attitude can empower us and provide strength and resilience in the most difficult times. After WWII, Frankl and Egers emigrated to the United States and became friends, as well as professional peers, devoting their lives to helping others. It is hard to imagine two people better qualified by adversity to comment on the power of attitude in navigating life’s most arduous challenges.
Frankl was a keen observer of human nature and had worked as a Psychiatrist in Vienna before WWII broke out. In the space of just nine days, in 1946, he wrote "Man's Search for Meaning," feeling a sense of urgency to share his learnings on what had helped people retain their humanity and dignity in the face of incomprehensible suffering. Frankl emphasised that it is possible for us to find meaning by responding authentically and humanely to life’s challenges, and showing courage in the face of difficulty.
Frankl stressed the power of taking personal responsibility and focusing on what is within our control: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He asserted that no matter what circumstances we face, we can always choose our response: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space and in that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“The Choice,” published in 2018, was written by 90-year-old Edith Egers, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who, after emigrating to America, trained as a Psychologist. Unlike Frankl, it took decades for Egers to feel ready to write her extraordinary memoir, which offers a compelling story of tenacity, resilience and hope. Egers believes that: “Our painful experiences aren’t a liability—they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.” The energetic and delightful Egers has recently completed her second book and is still working as a Psychologist.
Despite the horrors and deprivations Egers and Frankl experienced, they both retained a private and untouchable inner world. As Egers was being transported in the back of a truck to a concentration camp, her mother told her something that she credited with saving her life many times over: “We don't know where we're going, we don't know what's going to happen, but no one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.”
Frankl made a similar observation following his liberation from Auschwitz: "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, to choose one’s own way."
So, as we face our future and its uncertainties, I hope all of us can draw strength from these exemplary human beings, who highlight the power of our attitude, and our enduring freedom to choose it.
Frankl, Victor. (1946). “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Egers, Edith. (2018) “The Choice.”