We are all well aware that we have the ability to choose. It may not feel like it, but if we pause, we realise in fact, that it is the singular most true thing about each of us who can exercise our mind and will: choice is our greatest power.
I have believed and taught this, but as I read Edith Eger’s book, The Choice, it strikes me how easy it is for us to relinquish and fail to mobilise this singular power of ours – well and wisely.
2019 was winding down, the world is reeling from Hongkong, Greta Thumberg, China-US trade war… and things got impossibly hot with the raging fires in Australia. I needed a pick-me-up, and reached for this book.
Before it gets light, the veil of darkness must descend. This is true for sunrise as for strength that surprises.
Eger’s story drives us away from saying these truisms easily though. The words, images, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, soul-shattering realities of her life are both so impossible and relatable.
“What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed….But..I’m here, this is now, I have learned to tell myself, over and over, until the panicky feeling begins to ease.” (p7)
It may seem that all the best we can do it cope. That isn’t such a bad thing. It certainly isn’t a moral failure. Tough, dark, wicked things happen to us. “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional”. Edith writes honestly about how this became true in her life, slowly, painfully, miraculously.
As the youngest of three girls, Edith was sympathetic towards her parents’ joyless marriage. She carries the burdens and the wounds, as well as the joys and the possibilities of life. Who knows the trajectory of her life as she envied her sisters, one clearly charismatic while the other a musical prodigy.
Read simplistically, as a child is wont to, her sisters are better off than her. But is that the case? Can we simply compare lives this way?
As she turns sixteen, Edith, the one her mother laments as being the plain Jane, attracts the attention of a schoolmate. They develop a romantic relationship, which is abruptly interrupted and terminally severed by — Auschwitz.
“All your ecstasy in life is going to come from the inside” was the sage advice her ballet teacher gave her. This wisdom, her mother’s, her father’s affection, and the romance formed a bulwark for her as she underwent hell on earth.
“We were able to discover an inner strength we could draw on – a way to talk to ourselves that helped us feel free inside, that kept us grounded in our own morality, that gave us foundation and assurance even when the external forces sought to control and obliterate us.” (p57)
Her story confirms for me that life is equal parts of dark and light, capable of being wasted by misery and won by miracles.
Her nearly year-long ordeal which landed her with a broken back and a lifetime of battling trauma and stress had points of light, like a rope of salvation she could hold on to. At times it held her. The gift of bread from the man who started the pogrom, the farmer, the soldier, the other captives, her sisters, her mentor Viktor Frankl and her husband Bela.
Her story reveals how even when choices are made for us, we can choose our responses. It shows up how we can make poor choices because our frame of understanding is hijacked by our fears, and how redemption can be around the corner. It calls us to refuse to give up our right to live, and to choose, by being unafraid to confront all that holds us prisoner and hostage.
A huge part of living in a world that is broken is learning to forgive:
“To forgive is to grieve – for what happened, for what didn’t happen – and to give up the need for a different past.” (p280)
Edith eventually became a psychologist, and her message is reinforced as she shares bravely about how she operated as a wounded healer with her clients. Her truthfulness and vulnerability formed a compassion that most modern practitioners don’t possess. She hands over her phone number. She hugs and weeps with her clients. She believes fervently in the hope of their healing.
“When we heal, we embrace our real and possible selves.” (p295)
Her story bears this out as she heals, layer by layer… until she eventually even returns to the site of her worst horrors, and finally strip any hold they have on her.
“Our painful experiences aren’t a liability – they’re a gift.” – isn’t something one can glibly say.
Yet, that may well be the point we need to reach. It reminds me of a portion in the Bible which bristles most of us:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1v2-4)
We react and refuse pain, and there is reason for that. Yet in truth, we can neither escape nor avoid it. In the pain, we need faith, that our lives have meaning.
“Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life…. THis meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him along; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.” – Viktor Frankl
Edith would add:
“When we abdicate taking responsibility for ourselves, we are giving up our ability to create and discover meaning. In other words, we give up on life.” (p330)
For too long, we offer untenable notions when we ask people to grin and bear it. That works for physical discomforts and inconveniences for sure, but that not what meaning-seeking, perseverance and faith are on about.
Persevering is drawing on inner and God-given resources to endure. It is staying on the journey of looking inward and back into the past to understand our reactions and heal from trauma and wounds. It is being patient with others and self as we and they heal.
Two things work against this perseverance. We think that sense making is answering ‘Why’. But Auschwitz has not ‘Why’.
Secondly, one of our favourite mechanisms in life is to assign blame. This fault-finding is in the end rather futile. Adults get in endless fights with this rhetoric, “If only you didn’t…”. At times, we take the blame upon ourselves, “If only I…”. Little children, often unable to stand up to point a finger, often blame themselves. Hence the abject misery children undergo when their parents mess up or adults abuse them.
Thus Edith reminds us that the work of forgiveness must include forgiving ourselves and letting go of the blame. To do this, there must be rage, the red hot anger at the travesty.
The question is, will we create that safe space to allow ourselves to grieve, to rage and forgive, to so to be able to choose?
Edith’s journey to freedom took her decades. The Choice published in 2019, she is ninety years old! Like her book, she is a classic.
Here is another story:
“The day I forgave the Nazis, I also privately forgave my parents, whom I had hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them; mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents.”
The Day I Forgave Dr Mengele:
- In the news now, Poland is apparently trying to abdicate her part in the Holocaust.
- Was Germany’s willingness to face her horror and make reparations a reason for her success today as a nation?