“To Choose One’s Attitude”

IMG_2647We are living in interesting times. Heads of state are declaring war on the media. Lies and “alternate facts” are becoming everyday occurrences, making it difficult to determine whose “truth” is the true truth. Aggression and violence on a state level have become common place in so many places that it isn’t even newsworthy anymore. And some human beings are still treating others like cattle, transporting them in trucks and leaving them to die at the road side or to drown in tiny little boats put out on a vast sea, not to speak of those who are still being sold into slavery of one kind or another. Sometimes, looking at the news, it feels like the darkness is all-encompassing.

However, there is also still a lot of good happening in the world. People who help others generously and without attention to race, gender, level of ability, or political association. Organizations that are stepping up to the plate to develop and embrace clean technology and humane employment. Groups that work together to resist, joining forces across previously clearly drawn lines. And simple, everyday examples of loving kindness keep showing up everywhere.

But, as the great Russian writer Dostoevsky said: “Man is fond of counting his troubles but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up, as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.” And so we suffer. We are paralyzed with fear or overcome with despair. We fume in anger and laugh nervously in our confusion over all the strange, unbelievable things we now see and hear almost on a daily basis. But what if there was another way?

In a study group I attend we were talking about the “big emotions” — fear, anger, shame — being kind of guardians of the threshold. The thought brought forward in the book we are studying (“The Human Soul” by Karl König) was that we feel these strong emotions when our higher self makes itself known through everyday life actions. Or, in other words: when we are afraid, we feel “I can’t do this”, we feel small and alone; when we are ashamed we are reminded of our limitations, our isolation in our own little selves; and when we are angry we feel powerless although we know that something isn’t right, that our boundaries (or the boundaries of those around us) have been violated. In all three of those situations we could heal the disconnect, the isolation, if we were able to connect to the higher part of ourselves, the part in which we are not limited or isolated, the part which connects us to the whole of humanity, the whole of life and the divine: our higher self.I am not sure if I am expressing the meaning of the book’s author perfectly but it makes sense to me to look at the current world situation through this lens.

The other day I found this quote by Doe Zantamata, an author and photographer, online: “It is only in our darkest hours that we may discover the true strength of the brilliant light within ourselves that can never, ever, be dimmed.” Maybe those people who are leaving kind messages in front of a neighbourhood mosque, who stand by a bullied classmate or the person who is being verbally assaulted with racist slurs in the subway, maybe those people do these things because — consciously or not — these actions connected them with their higher selves and through this with their hope and their inner light.

In an interview Mark Ruffalo said: “If you are losing hope you aren’t doing enough.” When I first heard this quote I felt offended: isn’t there plenty in the world right now over which to lose hope? And how can I create any meaningful change in these big, global situations? Losing hope felt almost like an inevitability. But then again, maybe the man is right. Maybe it isn’t about BIG actions, about changing the hearts and minds of all. Maybe it is about insisting on the positive, on that which makes us truly human: our ability to make conscious choices, to act consciously and compassionately. Instead of letting the events in the world — and the actions of others — dictate how I feel, what if I find a way to stay true to what I know to be the truth of my soul, the truth of the spiritual worlds? What if I refuse to be disconnected from my higher self and that of all the other people on this planet? What if I keep looking for ways to bring the positive into this world?

Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who lived from 1905 to 1997. He also was a Jew and in 1942 he and his whole family were moved to Theresienstadt, a Jewish Ghetto / concentration camp. This was the beginning of a series of transports to different concentration camps at the end of which he would be the only surviving member of this family (with the exception of his sister who had left Austria for Australia before the deportations began). During his time in the concentration camps he worked with other prisoners and he observed the ways in which their emotional and mental health responded to the horrors they lived and witnessed daily. After his liberation he worked as a psychiatrist and psychologist. He developed “logotherapy”. He wrote several books, his first being “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he speaks about his life in the concentration camps and his observations during this time. One of the many inspiring and humbling quotes from this book is this:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.1

To Frankl it became obvious that the attitude to choose is that of love, “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire1. He linked the ability of some prisoners to better survive the horrors of the concentration camps not to their physical strength or the intellectual understanding of events: he found that it were those who had someone or something to live for — someone they loved, something they cherished — who would be able to survive longer and stronger.

Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.1

To us, here and now, much more than only this loving contemplation is possible. We still live in a world in which positive action is possible. And yet, looking for that which we love with the deepest part of our hearts and souls can give us the strength and hope to keep looking, to keep acting.

When I look for the beloved I carry in me, I realize that for me it isn’t any one person or thing in this world. For me the beloved is a forest in spring or a meadow in summer. It is in the song of birds and the smile on a child’s face. It is in the worried faces of parents who are moving their children through war zones and hunger in their hope to find freedom and safety for them. It is in the shy blush of a young person who is meeting love for the first time and in the tired look of a street worker late at night. It is in the stars and in the dirt in the abandoned corner lot. It is in the meow of my cats, the frustrated grumbling of my spouse and the deep sigh in my heart. The beloved, for me, is in all that is life — and that, maybe sadly but likely for a reason that is as of yet beyond my knowing, includes the Angry, the Unjust, the Stupid. If I can’t find it in them, I will just have to keep looking for it elsewhere and continue to point it out in the world, to create it, even. Because in the end what matters is if there is light that survives and maybe even thrives, even in the darkest night.

And so, one more quote, this one from Albert Schweitzer:
Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.

1Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl. The original title of this book was “Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe Erlebt das Konzentrationslager” (this translates to “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”)