Let me tell you the story of a man named Viktor Frankl.
In 1942, the shadow of the Third Reich lay heavy on Europe. When the Nazis finally came for Frankl and his family, it seemed all was lost. His father perished in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. Two years later Frankl and the rest of his family were driven to Auschwitz, where he lost his mother. Later, his wife died in the Bergen-Belsen camp.
Everywhere he turned there was the barbed wire, the armed guards, the gas chambers, the mountains and the trenches of the dead, the stench of sickness and decay; in short, the creation of hell on earth. Yet even here, somehow – you could say miraculously – Frankl had an epiphany. There was just one thing in this world that the Nazis could never take from him: his power to choose how he responded to the unimaginable trauma they had inflicted upon him and his.
And what he chose was to hold on to the idea that there was hope beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounded him on every front. He chose to believe that this life had meaning, that he still had a “why” for existing, for carrying on in the world. Instead of uselessly ruminating on the tragedy all around him he chose to contemplate his beloved and his love for her.
Frankl survived the camps and went on to describe his experiences in his memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1947) which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.1
what you CONTROL
Previously I wrote about the importance of acknowledging that you can’t control everything. There’s no clearer example of that than Frankl. Yet it may be what Frankl teaches us about the flipside of that coin that matters more: what you do control. After all, if you’re a fool to think you control everything you are equally a fool to think you control nothing.
No matter what your circumstance, there is always one thing you control and it makes all the difference in the world: yourself. After all, it is inside your mind that you experience the world and it is there that you experience well-being and suffering. So while you cannot control the world you can, like Frankl, control your response to the world.
Psychological research tells us that those who assume that control of their well-being lies outside of themselves, see themselves as perpetual victims, blame everyone else for everything, and tend to be (unsurprisingly) more all-round miserable. Those who assume that control of their well-being lies inside themselves, see themselves as having power and agency and tend to be more fulfilled in their relationships, careers, life-satisfaction and so forth.2
And no, this is not some mindless new-agey mantra to just “be positive.” Tell someone who has just lost a loved one that they should choose to “think happy thoughts,” and they will be right to punch you in the face. A self-care mantra worth remembering is: “It’s ok to not be ok.”
But whether we choose to let grief destroy us, or we choose to repress them with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to deal with our emotions in a healthy way, we are still always making a choice about how we respond. If that wasn’t the case, then all well-being and self-care advice would be in vain.
By realising that we choose our response to the world, that we are not perpetual victims who control nothing any more than we are Gods who control everything, we can begin to own our suffering, to control our suffering. In so doing, we begin to own and control ourselves.
You may just find that in controlling yourself, you in fact control much more than you realise.
YOUR mind, YOUR CHARACTER AND YOUR PURPOSE
Different traditions have emphasised at least three different ways that you control yourself and your response to the world.
Buddhist mindfulness is based in cultivating control in terms of your state of mind, or how you think. When you ground your attention in the present moment and gain some distance from your thoughts, observing them without attachment, you are in a state where you can literally choose which thoughts you are going to indulge in. You are not simply battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind.
This is why mindfulness has been so effective as a method of pain-relief. It’s not that meditation reduces the primary physical pain itself, it’s that it reduces what psychologists call “secondary pain,” or our mental and emotional reaction to the primary pain. According to this research, much of the pain we feel when we experience physical injury is actually of this “secondary” type, not the actual pain itself.3 As it turns out, we’re all just over-reacting drama-queens, and mindfulness helps cut through that nonsense.
Greek and Roman Stoicism emphasises control in terms of developing who you are, your character as a human being. In fact, the Stoic “Dichotomy of Control” is one of the earliest and clearest expressions of the idea that while we don’t control the world we do control ourselves. Epictetus said, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”4 But how do we make the “correct” judgements? We must improve ourselves.
External goals like wealth, fame, the admiration of others, etc. are no good because they largely depend on factors outside our control. Whereas internal goals that develop our character, i.e. “virtues” like wisdom and compassion, are good because they lie within our control. So instead of indulging in pointless wishful-thinking that the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, just focus on the kind of person you want to be.
Instead of hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, just focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, just focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, just be a voice for anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-classism and environmentalism, which you control.
Yet Frankl himself is usually associated with the not-so-ancient and very loose school known as Existentialism, which advocates control in terms of figuring out your purpose, or why you carry on. Their catch-cry is “existence precedes essence,”5 which basically just means that, rather than coming into existence as the result of some predetermined purpose (as set by God, Fate, Nature and so forth), we come into existence and then choose our purpose.
More simply put, the meaning of life – and therefore the meaning of all the crap that life throws at you – is what you make it. Jean-Paul Sartre – the poster-boy of Existentialism – even went so far as to argue that a person is free even when they’re in chains, since they have the freedom to choose the meaning of their condition.
Such thinking was certainly part of Frankl’s answer to the Nazi concentration camps: “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.”6 In fact he went even further, posing that finding one’s meaning is the fundamental driving force for human beings; the “will to purpose” as opposed to Friedrich Neitzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”
The Existentialists won’t tell you what the meaning of your life is. In fact, looking to anyone but yourself to tell you the meaning of your life will get you accused of “bad faith,”7 of pretending that others know something that they don’t. Although I’m sure there’s a cult leader or two out there who would be more than happy to tell you the meaning of your life, I would hope you decline the offer of their advice.
No, freedom entails responsibility, and so I’m sorry but this one is on you. If it helps, Albert Camus famously said that your purpose is just whatever keeps you from committing suicide.8
THE LAST OF THE HUMAN FREEDOMS
Whichever school of thought you align yourself with, there is truth in all of them: resilience comes down to the choices you make about how you think, who you are and why you carry on. The power to make these choices is something that no one – not even Nazis at the height of their power – can take away from you. It is in this sense that you are never powerless.
Frankl was by no means perfect.9 However, the main take-away from his story should be an invaluable lesson for us all. If Frankl could harness the power to choose his response to his external environment, choose who he was and the meaning of what happened to him, even during one of the darkest episodes of all time and with such a horrific level of personal loss, I’m not sure what excuse the rest of us have.
I will leave you with one of the many gems from his book: “Everything can be taken from a person 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.”