Terrible things are happening in our world. The worst nightmares of the mind-twentieth century seem to be returning. There are days when we might find it hard to rise above despair or escape a low, lethargic mood freighted with our own negative mantras. On days like that, I often call on one of the greatest life coaches I know.
I know him from his most famous book. Maybe you do too. His book is titled Man’s Search for Meaning. His name is Viktor Frankl. He was an Existentialist — which is to say, someone who believes that we must be authors of meaning for our own lives — and a successful psychiatrist in Vienna before Nazi Germany swallowed Austria in 1938. He was a Jew and a free-thinking intellectual, two reasons for the Nazis to send him to a concentration camp. For several years he was in Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.
In the camp, every vestige of humanity was taken from him, except what he could sustain in his mind and his heart. He was in constant pain, reduced to a near-skeleton with a tattooed number on his arm, liable to be beaten or killed at any moment on the whim of a guard. He was there to be worked to death. He watched those around him shot or beaten or carted off to the gas chambers every day.
He made an astonishing choice. He decided that, utterly deprived of freedom in the nightmare world around him, he would tend one precious candle of light within. He would exercise the freedom to choose his attitude. It sounds preposterous, if you don’t know the story of what unfolded. When people tell us we have a bad attitude in ordinary circumstances, we are usually not grateful. The suggestion that we can choose our attitude when the world around us seems cold and bleak, or we have suffered a major setback, even heartbreak, sounds cruel, and maybe preposterous. But let’s stay with Viktor Frankl.
When the light went out in his world, he managed to light that inner candle of vision. Despite the pain in his body and the screams and groans around him, he made an inner movie, a film of a possible life in a world where the Nazis had been defeated and Hitler was a memory. It was an impossible vision of course, an escapist fantasy. There was no way he was going to survive Auschwitz.
But he kept working on his inner movie, night after night, as director, scriptwriter and star. He produced a scene in which he was giving a lecture in a well-filled auditorium in New York City. His body had filled out, and he was wearing a very fine custom suit. The people in the audience were intelligent and enthusiastic. The theme of his lecture was “The Psychology of the Concentration Camps.” In his movie, not only were the death camps a thing of the past. He had retained the sanity and academic objectivity to speak about what went on during the Holocaust from a professional psychiatric perspective.
This exercise in inner vision, conducted under almost unimaginably difficult circumstances, got Viktor Frankl through. Not only did he survive the death camp; in 1946, one year after the war, he gave that lecture in his nice new suit in the New York auditorium from his inner movie set.
What do we take away from this?
First, that however tough our situation may seem to be, we always have the freedom to choose our attitude, and this can change everything. Let’s allow William James to chime in: “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Second, that our problems, however bad, are unlikely to be quite as bad as the situation of someone who has been sent to a Nazi death camp. That thought may help us to gain perspective, and to stand back from a welter of grief and self-pity and rise to a place where we can start to dream up something better.
Third, we can make inner movies, and if they are good enough it is possible that they will play in the theater of the world.
If we take Viktor Frankl’s example to heart, we see that choosing your attitude can be an exercise in creative imagination that is much more practical and original than trying to edit your inner soundtrack (though that is worth trying) or telling yourself that you can’t afford the energy of a negative thought (you can learn to use the energy of any strong emotion, including grief and rage).
Text adapted from Growing Big Dreams: Manifesting Your Heart's Desires through the Twelve Secrets of Imagination by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library