Viktor Frankl, whom the Nazis captured and imprisoned as a slave laborer in concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau, perhaps best clarifies and shows that you can feel free independently of physical constraints and that feeling free gives you all the value of being free.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.
“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.” According to Frankl even Auschwitz could not take away one’s ability to choose one’s beliefs, to use Method terminology.
This freedom – to choose one’s beliefs in any given set of circumstances – is not only the most important, it also costs nothing and depends on no one else to provide. Moreover, the Model reveals how readily you can implement it and the Method gives you practice building and developing it.
In my experience coaching, leading seminars, and living myself, I have found inflexibility in changing one’s beliefs the critical piece for most people to change and improve their lives, especially leaders and other successful people who have prosperous environments. Psychologists have told me flexibility plays a major role in intelligence. Before people develop this flexibility they fight belief changes that could help them, arguing against clear evidence that they can change. After they develop it they become kids in candy stores at the potential improvements to their lives they suddenly see everywhere. At that point I know my coaching time with them is nearing its end. Their independence is at hand.
I talked about people who created reward and freedom in jail, slavery, and concentration camps to cover the extremes. Since few of us live in such extreme conditions, I find it helpful to know people could create reward and freedom under harsher conditions than ours. If they could do it, so can we. After all, we all have the same tools to create reward and freedom – our emotional systems.
Still, though our environments are relevant to our perception of them, our beliefs are more important. We can control them even when we can’t change our environments. A generation ago, people had a few records they could play only at home. The generation before them had to play their own music. Today people with tens of thousands of songs in their pockets get frustrated when they can’t find a song to listen to. They can sound like they have it worse than Viktor Frankl.
Why did people’s emotional reactions move in the opposite direction of material prosperity?
If your beliefs lead you to feel worse than Viktor Frankl, your actual environment doesn’t matter. If you perceive your environment as worse, it is worse for you and you do have it worse then he did. You made it that way, but you can also make it other ways.
We can all choose our beliefs. No one else can control them any more than we allow. That is, we all have full access to all the freedom we could want.
You can choose how you view things no matter what your situation, meaning you can create the emotions you want, at least according to someone who lived through Auschwitz. Needless to say, Frankl was not unique in this view. Thoreau, Gandhi, King, and Mandela come to mind, for example.
But you can take away that ability from yourself. You can do what no one else can to remove your own freedom. By believing you can’t change your beliefs or not seeing your beliefs differ from reality (the map is not the territory), you imprison your thoughts more securely than any prison can jail your body. Or let’s look at things more positively: You can maintain all the freedom you need to experience the emotions you want by maintaining your ability to choose your beliefs.
Some call this mental freedom a luxury. Yet it costs nothing in time or any other resource. I believe they call it a luxury to excuse themselves their misery, convincing themselves they are victims unable to change themselves. On the contrary, it sustained Frankl, Douglass, Mandela, and many others when they had almost nothing else. How can we call a luxury what prisoners and slaves had? But I’m getting too far afield from the point of this section:
The most basic and valuable freedom is the ability to choose your beliefs.
You might consider feeling free less important than being physically free. These types of freedom are independent and for improving your life, feeling free – being able to choose your beliefs – is the one that matters. It enables you to do more of what you want in your life. That freedom enables you to turn any situation into one that gives you reward if you like it or do something about it if you don’t.
When you can choose your beliefs how you want, you will come to call that ability true freedom. You will come to see physical freedom as something still important, but nowhere near as important as mental freedom. By all means, work to create physical freedom if you pick that battle from all the things you could do with your life. But don’t confuse it with the ability to choose your beliefs.
Its opposite – the inability to choose your beliefs – confines you more than any jail cell could, which is why people get frustrated at not having enough music when they have more recorded songs than existed a generation before. It traps you into viewing the world how others make you and prevents you from doing anything about it.
But let’s end on an encouraging note: the reverse also works. Having minimal material possessions, you can feel better than a king. You can use anything you acquire to improve your life from there. That is freedom.
EDIT: continued tomorrow
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