The Last of the Human Freedoms

As you may know I often speak to groups on how to shift their focus and way of thinking so they can live a happier existence, regardless of their circumstances. We are all aware that there are people on this planet who live in horrific conditions and experience oppression of all kinds.  To suggest to any such person that they could be happier simply by choosing to shift their focus and way of thinking to the things that bring them joy might seem insensitive or ludicrous.  Yet, the truth is, even amidst the most devastating of circumstances, people can make courageous choices that will allow them some degree of relief from their suffering.  Let me offer up the real-life example of Viktor Frankl.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor shares what he learned from his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II.

“Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing, the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Read that again, and consider his situation as you do.  Physical and mental torture and a life seemingly with no choices.

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Surrounded by total despair and devastation, Viktor chose to embrace an attitude that enabled him to, at the very least, feel better and, at times was able to experience some degree of happiness that would be unimaginable considering his personal circumstances.  The actions he took to help a friend to develop his sense of humor amidst their shared tragedy resulted in providing both of them relief from their daily reality.  Here’s what they did: Viktor and his friend promised to imagine and tell each other every day some amusing incident that would happen after they were liberated.   This simple act of story telling developed into a sort of Cabaret improvised by other prisoners who joined in from time to time.  They sang shared poems, told jokes and developed a keen appreciation for the power of satire.   Many prisoners attended, despite their fatigue and the fact that they missed their daily food rations.  Their participation was effective in helping them to forget, if briefly, their dire situation.

To my mind, this shows that sometimes nourishment of the soul is more important than nourishment of the body.  Humor was used as a weapon in the fight for soul preservation.  It is well documented that humor, more than anything else within the human ambit of understanding, can help an individual to rise above any situation, if only for a few moments.

Even if only for a few moments at a time, Victor Frankl did whatever he could to shift his focus on the things that would help lift his spirits.  This simple act gave him an infallible attitude, the courage to dare to be at least happier than his circumstances dictated, and in the end was responsible for his survival.

It is my belief that we all intuitively know what Viktor understood and acted upon, that happiness is our right to choose and even our destiny.  It is a calling and a yearning for a higher part of ourselves, challenging us to experience a sacred “time-out” for peace and joy, even under the most severe circumstances.  Even if only for a few moments at a time.  Sometimes, my friend, a few moments of that happiness is all you need to keep you from giving up.

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