Episode 30: Lessons learned from Viktor Frankl
You are listening to The Confidence Catalyst Podcast with Hannah Coles Episode number 30: Lessons learned from Viktor Frankl
Every now and then you find something that completely CHANGES you. This is more than just a, “well, that was nice” kind of thing or that you picked up a few good things to think about – I’m talking CHANGE. This book CHANGED me and it will change you too. In this episode, I share just TWO gems that have shaped my outlook on life and who I am. You are not going to want to miss this one. Tune in, buy the book, be forever changed for the better!
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One of my teachers
Okay, every tenth episode I want to bring you one of my teachers, mentors, someone that has shaped my life in profound ways so that you can learn from them too and be uplifted and inspired. Today, I’m talking all about the book, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Every now and then you read a book or watch a movie even that just changes you. There’s a great many books and films that inspire, that teach you good things, and offer new perspectives but then once in a while, you come across something that truly changes you, like you are not the same person coming out of it than you were initially going into it.
A Book that Changed me
This book was one of those for me. It completely changed me and the way I look at the world. I’m so excited to be able to share some of my thoughts and what I’ve learned with you. So I want to back up and share a little bit about who Viktor Frankl is and where this book starts.
Who is Frankl?
Viktor was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was also a Holocaust survivor and author. This book was on my TBR list for a long time and I was hesitant to pick it up because I don’t like sad things. I’m very resistant going into things knowing that I’m going to cry. We have several movies that are really good and have amazing messages that I have a hard time being motivated to watch them because I know I’m going to cry and I knew it was going to be a difficult read just by the premise of this book but I also knew that I wanted to read it at least once and I’ve now read this several times and each time I’m just blown away.
The first time I read this I did cry – I cry every time I read this and I don’t want that to be a deterrent for you, if you’re like me and don’t like to cry, you’ll still want to read this one.
He writes and tells the reader that while this book isn’t a retelling of events that transpired he does share circumstances so you can get the context through which he observes and learns and focuses on how to survive.
Quoting Howard Kushner who wrote the forward from the book, he said, “Clearly many prisoners who desperately wanted to live did die, some from disease, some in the crematoria. But (his) concern is less with the question of why most died than it is with the question of why anyone at all survived. Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: life is not primarily a quest for pleasure…or a quest for power…but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life…A man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward feat.”
This whole book is full of his experiences and being faced with the most extreme opposition and violence and his observations, his inner voice, his inner strength that kept him alive, thriving even, and most of all maintained and refined his humanity and character.
Blaming the circumstances
In our lives, there are many times that we want to blame our circumstances for how we’re feeling. So in so hurt my feelings. It was that harsh comment that hurt me deeply. The actions of others that made me this way. And I used to buy into those thoughts and beliefs myself but clearly, if we can observe and learn from Viktor and these extreme cases and see how he and others rose above such treatment, it’s more than possible that we can too rise above our circumstances and continue to progress.
I told you this book changed me and I don’t say that lightly. This is definitely a book I give out as recommendations and gifts the most because it’s more than just a good idea, more than heroic tales, it challenges you to become more than you ever thought you could be. I’m don’t want to share the entire book with you or do a summary of it, I want you to read it so you can be changed too.
So what I’m going to do instead is just highlight a couple of key lessons that I learned from Viktor Frankl. There’s so many more but for time’s sake, I’ll stick to two.
The first I want to highlight is probably the most talked about and well known but it still changed me. We are the creators of our experience, not the circumstances, it’s never others, that gift, the gift of our agency to choose how we will think, feel, and experience life is 100% wholly up to us.
You get to choose
Consider that for a moment. You get to choose how you want to feel at any moment. It’s when we default to auto-pilot where we’re no longer being intentional or deliberate that we fall into a victim mentality, they shouldn’t have said that! Or entitlement, it’s not fair but truly to choose how we want to experience the world, this mortal journey is quite a divine right and responsibility.
Through his time spent in Auschwitz and before even he experienced everything being stripped from him, his home, his wife, his family, his profession, his freedoms, food, clothing, basic human needs, humanity and through all this he says,
Everything can be taken but ONE thing
“Everything can be taken from a man 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.”
This is profound and deeply powerful. Think about what or who you give this power away too. We give it away to our spouse when we’re angry with them because of the words they said, we give it away to the slow driver that’s cruising in the fast lane ahead of us, we give our power away to people that aren’t responding in ways that we think they should, we allow our circumstances to hold power over us, to make us feel hurt, annoyed, angry, rejected, disrespected, and insecure.
But it’s in realizing that these are all just circumstances, which by definition are all just neutral – meaning they don’t mean anything until you, exercise your define gift of agency and choose to be affected by them. It’s imperative to note that THEY, the circumstances didn’t make you feel anything. You chose to feel that way.
Frankl also says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I used to believe that others could hurt me emotionally. Sometimes, I’d be hurt when someone didn’t call back when they wouldn’t come by or I’d be offended by remarks of other people. Maybe I’d be frustrated with my kids when they wouldn’t listen. For a good portion of my life, I operated from what I call the Mix Up – it’s when you believe that circumstances can directly hurt you. But as Frankl clearly points out, there’s a space. In between the circumstance and your feelings, there’s a space, there’s agency, there’s the power to choose your response. It’s in this beautiful space that we access our freedom.
You can choose
You don’t have to choose to be hurt, offended, rejected, or insecure because you have agency and great power to choose how you want to feel at any given moment. This is an incredible gift. Our feelings drive all our actions. So you, in this beautiful space can see how monumental it is that you get to choose how you want to feel. And that’s really it, most of us don’t know how we want to feel. We don’t spend time thinking about it or deliberately choosing ahead of time, too often we just go through life reacting from one circumstance to the next.
My top 5 feelings
Each morning I choose my five top feelings I want to create and feel throughout the day. This gives me a direction to move towards. So when I’m presented with this stimulus or circumstances I don’t have to react. I get to use this beautiful space to choose and redirect how I want to feel.
Our thoughts hold more power than we realize or utilize. We think we need the external to be happy, to feel how we want to feel but it’s simply is not true. We get to experience what we really want, which is to experience the feeling we would feel if we had the external by focusing on and turning our thoughts to create those feelings.
Fulfillment, bliss, and love
There’s a beautifully tender experience Frankl talks about where he was able to create love, bliss, and joy amidst the vilest and horrific accounts. I want to share his experience with you. He says,
“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones, and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life, I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. 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…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 such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”
When was the last time you created bliss?
In utter desolation, he created fulfillment, bliss, and love. When was the last time you felt bliss? It’s within your grasp. You have the power to create that magic. Nothing outside of you needs to change, in fact, Frankl mentions that too.
He says, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Instead of trying to change the outside to create the feeling you want, try instead working from the inside – create the feeling first and because you feel that feeling your actions create the outside change you want.
What a glorious gift, a powerful gift, a bit of magic.
Meaning in suffering
The second lesson I want to highlight and the one that struck me the most was the idea that we can find joy and meaning in our times of trials and afflictions. I want to read this quote from him to start,
“Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’
These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in [concentration] camp, whose suffering and death bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.
It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful,…
even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Such men are not only in concentration camps.
Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.”
This to me, takes agency to a whole different level. For so many of us, myself included we struggle with the trial. It can seem unbearable and we’re confused as to why it’s lasting so long or why Heavenly Father hasn’t stepped in to take care of it yet but here Frankl is offering us a new level of growth. There are only certain blessings and a level of growth and refinement that can only be accessed in the struggle, the trial, the suffering.
We need the suffering because it invites us to experience a new depth of character. He talks about having purpose in our sufferings. That he’d wake up each morning and actually start to look forward to each day to prove to himself that he could be worthy of his sufferings.
Do you look forward to your suffering?
I don’t know how many of us do that, that we wake up and look forward to our sufferings. We tend to want to run away and avoid any resistance or uncertainty and instead when we focus on our purpose and who we really are our perspective changes and we can embrace and look forward to our trials and enjoy the growth and the journey that this challenge offers us.
Frankl shares a beautiful account that he had once offering a new perspective to a client. He says,
“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else.
Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”
“Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”
He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning
Isn’t that incredible? Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
When we change our thoughts, we change our feelings. When we choose not to label our circumstances as sufferings they cease to be suffering. Instead, they can become noble, sacred, and something to look forward to.
Think about your trials and what you’re struggling with right now. You are not stuck. You can find joy and bliss even in the midst of your current challenges. This is so much more than think happy thoughts – this is finding purpose, fulfillment, and meaning in your circumstances.
No matter what happens in your life remember this great truth from Viktor Frankl, let it guide you and offer you options. He says, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude…Each of us has (their) own inner concentration camp… We must deal with, with forgiveness and patience-as full human beings, as we are and what we will become.”
Keep an eternal perspective. You get to use your agency to create the experience you want to live. No matter the circumstances you get to choose your attitude, your feelings, your experience. You can find meaning, joy, and even bliss in your afflictions and trials.
Our agency is such an amazing gift.
If you haven’t read this book yet, you’re going to want to. Go buy it read it, mark it, apply it, and see how differently you experience life. This book will change you in amazing ways.
I’m grateful he used his extreme challenges to share his perspective and his experiences with us so we too can learn, grow, and become more.
Okay, you guys, that’s all I’ve got for you this week. Talk to you next week
Where to buy the book? ANY bookstore because it’s amazing but I bought mine from Amazon – here you go!