Out of the ashes: Part II

Not only am I a self-professed food snob and logophile, I am a cynic.

Do you believe in the power of positive thinking?

In Part I of Out of the Ashes, I referenced the book Man’s Search for Meaning  by Viktor Frankl.

When I was telling a friend about the book, he mistook it for another “self-help” book, like ones you would see from Zig Zigler, Tony Robbins, or Napoleon Hill. The first part of Frankl’s book is autobiographical of his time in the concentration camps. It is not so much about what happened to him as it is about the observations he made of the people around him, the other prisoners, the Capos (prisoners with special privileges), and the guards alike.

The second part is an explanation of the school of thought developed by Frankl and self-christened as logotherapy. While I would not agree with everything Frankl proffers, there are points of value in his book that make it a worthwhile read. One of which is regarding one’s attitude: choosing your attitude despite the circumstances you are faced with.

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

This is the statement I believe that led my friend to the conclusion that it was another self-help book. If it were the crux of the book I may be prone to agree, and perhaps this was the springboard from which many of these pull-yourself-up-by-your-own- bootstraps coaches developed their theories. Yes, he believes that a positive attitude can make a difference in the outcome of your situation, but not as you might think.

It is not that positive thinking will somehow change your outcome. It is about giving meaning to your suffering. You may still suffer and die. You may not be able to change the end result, but it is about dignifying the suffering through your attitude toward it.

*In another post I would like to talk a bit more about our ability to affect change in our future. I started to here, but it is a bit raw and needs its own space. *

I am cynical by nature, genetics (Cynicism seems to be a family trait. I prefer the term realism 😉 ), and life experiences. I am fully aware of this tendency, not to see the glass as half empty, but to see the glass as having a big crack down the side so that no matter how much you fill it, it will continue to leak. I don’t view this as fatalistic as the glass-half-empty predisposition though, because though the glass may leak, you just keep pouring in more to try to keep it filled.

Perhaps this propensity is why I am not a huge fan of the positive thinking movement. In fact, there are times where I can see it as downright dangerous, preying on people desperate for tangible help in their difficult situations. Positive thinking can perpetuate a false reality. No matter how much you may want the outcome to conform to your wishes, positive thinking can set you up for some harsh realism when your desires are not realized. Those useless mantras “I am healthy” or “my cancer cells are shrinking” do not eradicate disease no matter how strong the desire behind them.

There is, however, something that I cannot deny and that is the power of positive thinking. Does this sound like a contradiction? I believe the difference is in the expection. If you are hoping to reverse a disease process or to find freedom from a painful reality through positive thinking, it is likely to leave you feeling hopeless with no more health or freedom than before.

If however, you are able to look at the suffering itself as an opportunity to grow and become a better person, your suffering may take on a new meaning.

Bitterness can destroy a person. I cannot imagine a circumstance more ripe for bitterness than to give moments, days, months, years to someone, only to have never had it appreciated or fully reciprocated or just discarded as meaningless. Time is a precious commodity, one that, when spent, can never be replenished. There is no retrieving a single grain of sand that passes through the hourglass of time.

The grim reality is that the time and effort and energy you gave to an illusion is lost. This does not mean, however, that the time cannot be redeemed. It has passed, yes, and you cannot get it back, but there is no gain in mourning what was and what could have been. Instead, we redeem it by looking for the good in it.

As humans, endowed with emotions, this is not to say we cannot have a good cry over it, feel the pain of it, or go through a period of grief as a result of it. To not do so would make us robotic, devoid of human emotion. The degree to which you experience this will depend on you as a person. This may not even be a once and done process, but triggered at times by memories or even cyclical. I would venture to say that having an emotional response is to be expected.

It would be a mistake, however, to hold on to those negative emotions and nurse them, giving them undue attention and energy. It would be, in essence, trading one cage for another. You cannot be truly free by holding on to the pain of the past. This part of your past does not have to determine your future. In fact, it takes great strength to let go of the past and great bravery to move on into the future.

It is what it is. 

This phrase, passed down to me by my father, though short, is significant. It states that what has happened is and forever will be. There is no changing it. Perspective can play a great part in looking back at what was, however. I can either choose to see all the wasted time and energy, or I can choose to see the parts of me made strong through my circumstances. The lessons I learned. Even the poor responses I have had can be turned into a positive learning experience. Aren’t you so grateful that we have the opportunity to learn and grow?

But that is exactly what it is. An opportunity, not a surety. This is where choice comes in. Again, Viktor Frankl…

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.

You have the ability to use the rest of your days living free from anger and bitterness.  Don’t give up the freedom you are fighting for or have fought for by locking yourself in a different kind of cage.

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  • Reply Liberty July 19, 2017 at 12:41 am

    Time lost, redeemed by good found in it. I like it. Thank you. Sounds a lot like R. 8:28.

  • Reply Alanna July 22, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    That last line is so important. Bitterness or constantly dwelling on my hurt just locks me up *in a different kind of cage*. So we’ll said.

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