Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hurt and Choice: What Viktor Frankl Knew


When something goes awry, we have two obvious ways of viewing the circumstances in order to make sense of them.

Here is an exaggerated example to make the point: Let's say you promised your sister that if you win the lottery, you will write her a check for $100,000. Then, let's say you did not win the lottery. How would you feel if your sister told you and anyone with ears that you owe her $100,000, and that you refused to honor your word, which was nothing more than a cruel lie?"

You might say, "That's not fair!"

If so, ask yourself, "What is it that is not fair?"

Your answer might be: what my sister did to me--what she said about me--is not fair.

In this way, you can give voice to your perception that an injustice has been done. Your sister did something that hurt you, and you think about it in terms of fairness.

It is a very likely in this case that you will also think in terms of a perpetrator and a victim. To boil it down further, you feel that your sister has done something to you and that you are the victim of her behavior: she has twisted your good intention into a promise, which she claims you failed to honor. She is not being fair to you.

In other words, you react to this injustice by declaring yourself the victim. You stand accused of something you did not do. Not fair.

But another reaction to the same situation could be, "This is wrong."

Ask yourself, "What is it that is wrong?"

Your answer: The way my sister treated me--what she said about me--is wrong.

The situation shifts. The focus is no longer on you as the victim of someone else's bad behavior. It is now on the idea that your sister made a decision that is wrong. Her analysis of the facts is incorrect. She made a mistake.

The fact is that mistakes like this probably make her feel miserable. Remember that only a miserable person would feel a need to do something like what she did to you in the first place. No one misconstrues the truth like that out of happiness and contentment.

I'm not suggesting that you rush to embrace your unfortunate sister for her weak discernment skills. To the contrary, I believe that her choices create her life, and that her life is probably full of things she has created which she now trips over regularly. Which are not your responsibility.

The point I am trying to make is that your sister's behavior is not about you unless you choose to make it about you. You may choose to see her lie about the lottery money as a misguided departure from the truth, or you may choose to see it as something mean she has done to you.

You choose to see the incident as being unfair or wrong.

Of course, the incident described above is both: it is unfair and it is wrong. But if you choose to see it only as unfair, you are likely choosing the role of victim for yourself, a role that is not inherent in the facts of the case.

I bring this up because I see it as a way to set yourself free. Allow the choices someone else makes to reflect on her, and believe that the consequences of her choices pave the path of her life. In this way you can see that you are not part of the equation: you do not have to accept her wrong view of something just because she wants you to accept it.

This is your choice, and the same applies to you as to your sister: your choices pave the path of your life. Why litter it with misconceptions about the behavior of others, litter that can trip you and make you feel like a victim, powerless to change anything or move forward until justice is done? Victims are stuck. You don't want to be stuck, do you?

Something can be both unfair and wrong, and it can affect you deeply, but it doesn't have the power to mandate your response. That response is yours to choose.

Viktor Frankl survived life in concentration camps because he knew his dignity rested in his choice of how he would interpret the world as it caved in around him.

Choice is our greatest gift, and even our smallest decisions are important in making us who we are.

Photography: Clarice Cliff Winding Path, www.wye.co.uk

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, Viktor Frankl has been my hero for thirty years or more. Thanks for the reminder, and for the powerful words about taking responsibility for our thoughts.

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