Changing Attitudes, Changing Life

Sunset 3

“Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom. . . .”
–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning[1]

In spite of the story the book tells, reading Man’s Search for Meaning, written by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in 1946, has given me hope, courage, and guidance.  Man’s Search for Meaning describes Frankl’s experiences as a concentration-camp inmate during World War II.  His original book and subsequent additions—a 1962 explanation of his philosophy and a 1984 postscript, “The Case for Tragic Optimism”—present his theory of psychology, called logotherapy, from the Greek word logos, or meaning.  Frankl’s memoir and essays explain how he was able to maintain his fundamental optimism and humanity, in spite of horrors and suffering that profoundly exceed any that I can imagine enduring and surviving.  The book also describes an approach to living that can help any of us master our everyday challenges and make the most of life’s opportunities.

Before looking at the work’s implications for those of us living fairly comfortable lives—as well as for those suffering together or alone—I want to address directly the subject of the hells that we human beings create for one another.  Frankl closes “The Case for Tragic Optimism” by saying, “. . . the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his [or her] best.  So let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.  And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake” (114).  Those concentration-camp inmates who had the spiritual strength to comfort and aid others in spite of the hell in which they, themselves, were living show the heights of which we human beings are capable.  They were saints unbowed by the most profound inhumanity.  The scourge of inhumanity continues.  We who wish to relieve that scourge may not be saints, but we can do our best, and we can work to make that best better still.

Because Frankl speaks of Hiroshima, I will mention the 1946 book Hiroshima,[2] in which journalist and novelist John Hersey follows six survivors of the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on their city, killing tens of thousands of men, women, and children.  In the 1980s, Hersey returned to Hiroshima to continue the story of the individuals profiled in his original book.  Much as with Frankl’s observations, the seventh-circle-of-hell devastation and suffering that the bomb produced also inspired miraculous kindness.  For example, surgeon Terufumi Sasaki tended to injured survivors “for three straight days with only one hour’s sleep” (56), and Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a small man, helped and carried about twenty horribly burned men and women from a sandpit endangered by the tide to boats, transported them across the river, and lifted them onto safer ground (45-46).  The people whom Hersey and Frankl describe become fellow human beings with whom to identify.  It is too easy to lose the sense of individual faces, personalities, and histories within the statistics of a mass catastrophe or atrocity.  But once the statistics resolve into people carrying with them their souls and their stories, we can see that a single death or instance of inhumanity is too many.  Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning helps to offer an antidote to violence, cruelty, indifference, and despair.

Here are a dozen quotations from Man’s Search for Meaning that for me create a guide to finding greater significance and peace of mind in my life and to doing better by others, as well as myself:

  1. The salvation of man is through love and in love” (36).
  2. “. . . humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (40).
  3. “. . . 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” (55).
  4. “. . . often it is . . . an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives [the individual] the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself [or herself]” (60).
  5. “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual” (63).
  6. “. . . human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and . . . this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death” (67).
  7. “. . . someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a [spouse], somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he [or she] would not expect us to disappoint him [or her]. He [or she] would hope to find us suffering proudly—not miserably—knowing how to die” (67-68).
  8. “. . . no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them” (72).
  9. “. . . the meaning of life differs from [person to person], from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment” (83).
  10. “‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!’” (83-84).
  11. “. . . happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue” (102).
  12. “. . . there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. . . . Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past” (112).

For now I want to look at the third principle, the truth that we human beings share the inalienable freedom and responsibility to choose the attitudes we take toward all the aspects and circumstances of our lives.  For Frankl, this central tenet of the philosophy known as Existentialism is linked with both hope and a belief in a spiritual reality greater than our individual time on earth.  Other than having a generally optimistic outlook, I can’t claim yet to have made good use of the power of attitude to inform experience, to use consciously the fact that “thinking [helps to make] it so” [3] in order to steer my life more effectively.

My one instance of consciously using attitude to inform experience occurred along with a three-week trip to Italy several years ago.  Granted, using attitude to benefit a vacation is the pre-kindergarten version of the practice, but the example was telling for me.  Before I left home, I decided that I would find the trip fulfilling and wonderful, no matter what.  And there were several no-matter-whats: emotional disagreements with a traveling companion with whom I soon parted ways, a train strike threatening to strand me in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, an irate taxi driver who vented his bad day in a tirade directed at me as we drove through town, trouble finding a way home past midnight after an outdoor opera, a face full of hives from an allergic reaction to mosquito bites.  But the trip was genuinely, magnificently joyful and the source of glorious memories for a lifetime.  Because of my overall attitude, any problems and inconveniences were not able to make lasting inroads in my outlook and the ways that I experienced my time in Italy.

Those of us fortunate enough to travel for pleasure usually leave many of our everyday stresses and responsibilities behind us while we’re on vacation.  Nevertheless, I believe that consciously choosing my attitude toward the events and circumstances of my life will help me during both ordinary and extraordinary times.  Choosing my attitudes—rather than letting my feelings and thoughts arise haphazardly—will help me to overcome my troublesome, if mundane, physical, emotional, and spiritual discomforts.  (It probably goes without saying that the attitudes one chooses must be grounded in the plausible.  For instance, deciding that I am a beautiful twenty-five-year-old is not an attitude but a delusion.)

Here is a defeating belief that I’ve been carrying around with me:
I have not earned the right to regard my writing as deserving a place of priority in my schedule.
Some of my underlying thinking includes this: If I don’t accept all—or nearly all—of the social engagements that present themselves to me, I am in danger of alienating my friends, of being ungrateful, and even of someday being alone.  Similarly, if I don’t respond to as many of my acquaintances’ casual requests for assistance as I possibly can—no matter how depleted my current store of spiritual and physical energy and of time—I am being selfish and unkind.

I have allowed that generally detrimental outlook to direct important parts of my life.  But writing is the form of creative expression that most fully engages and responds to my mind, spirit, abilities, values, beliefs, and desire to be of service.  So now, based on a more carefully reasoned interpretation of the facts, I choose the following attitude:
Whatever its limitations and strengths, my writing represents some of the best of what I have to offer others and to share of myself.  Therefore, writing deserves to have an honored, nearly inviolable place in my week.
If I don’t write regularly, I will lose the opportunities emerging through my blog; I will fail to develop any potential my writing holds to be useful to others, and I will continue to experience life as if part of my psyche were imprisoned.  Of course, solitary hours for writing and reflection will not be allowed to replace—but rather to complement and enhance—time with dear friends and family.  In addition, true emergencies and deep needs that I have the ability to ease will supersede even the most sanctified entries on my calendar.  But my writing times deserve more than to be thrown over willy-nilly.

The process of choosing one’s attitudes toward circumstances and events bears a little resemblance to reciting affirmations, such as repeating, “I am a strong woman.”  The theory of using affirmations is that repetition of a positive statement will eventually turn it into an assimilated belief and then into reality.  But I think that Frankl is asking us to go far beyond rote repetition of what and how we want to be.  He is asking us to determine actively our outlook and then consciously to live by its implications, opportunities, and demands.

All of the other principles from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that I have quoted above also encourage me and have the potential to guide me.  I expect to incorporate them into the ways of thinking, being, and doing that will, I hope, begin to characterize my life from this point forward.  I have a long, long way to go, but I’ll try to do my best.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part I translation by Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, Kindle edition).  Opening quotation: p. 55.

[2] John Hersey, Hiroshima (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[3] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2: “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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