The alternative is pricey
“Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 3 — William Shakespeare
It has been a while since I read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, yet so much of the insight I gained is still with me.
Frankl’s account of fellow prisoners in concentration camps alone is a reason to re-read this powerful work. He records his observations of people whose spirits and bodies were being destroyed.
Many writers have documented the horrific circumstances of these camps yet, as a psychologist, Frankl’s work is unique.
In the pages of his book, he noted that among the horror experienced by the inmates, he saw some who, despite where they were, had found meaning and a positive outlook on their circumstances. He observed,
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.
Frankl believed this positive outlook is the very thing that helped many in the camps survive. If finding meaning in our lives includes looking for the positive in things, it’s a worthwhile mental and emotional investment.
Optimists versus pessimists
It has long been said, an optimist sees a glass of water as half-full and a pessimist is one who sees the same glass of water as half-empty.
It is a good analogy yet there is more involved than just this simple observation. There are specific choices involved in each one.
An optimist is someone who chooses to focus on the fact that he can find purpose in the difficulties that come his way in life.
In the concentration camps, the focus of an optimist involved contemplating their need to survive for someone or something.
According to Frankl, the people in the concentration camps who were intent on surviving for some positive hope, such as reuniting with a child hidden many miles away were much more likely to survive.
This way of processing the difficulties of life strengthen people. Frankl said,
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.
The word optimist has the Latin root, optimum, meaning, best thing. It is my choice to look for the best outcome in any situation.
Optimism is not, however, failing to acknowledge that bad things are happening; denial is not healthy. Instead, the optimist sees beyond the bad to the greater good.
A pessimist is someone whose focus is on the bad situation and chooses not to see the future outcomes these difficulties reap.
It is understandable, that in the horror of life in the Nazi prison camps, an inmate’s focus would be upon the suffering he or she faced daily.
When someone is tired, hungry, tortured, angry and more, it becomes very difficult to focus on anything positive, yet, according to Frankl, a prisoner’s life depended upon making this choice. He said:
The prisoner who had lost faith in the future — his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.
The word pessimist comes from the Latin word, pessimus, which means, the worst. Pessimism is an easy trap to fall in to and because difficulties are part of life, Frankl says we are being tested day by day and hour by hour.
How we will face each difficulty will depend on what we focus on, the positive or the negative.
Warnings concerning our perspective on the difficulties of life.
1. Our emotions should not dictate the choices we make during the difficulties of life.
As one who regularly goes to battle with my emotions, I have to remind myself of the truth of Proverbs 23:7 (NASV), “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.”
Your feelings always follow your thoughts, whether you are aware of it or not. It is a difficult thing to change your thinking; passively letting your thoughts run through your head is setting yourself up for difficulties.
You must take an active role in your thought process and look for what Frankl calls, “meaning” in your circumstances.
Once you make the choice to discover the “meaning” in your situation and continue to focus on this, your feelings will follow the same logic.
2. You must decide ahead of time that the difficulties of life can give good things to you if you look for them.
James 1:2–3 (NIV) says, “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.”
There are many sayings like Nietzsche’s quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,”
that we hear so regularly, their meaning has sometimes gotten lost. We can become stronger through the difficulties of life and because we know this, we can look for the positive.
We can also help others when those same difficulties come their way.
Going through the death of a loved one with cancer can give you the unique ability to comfort others who find themselves on the same road.
Losing a job can enable you to get your financial priorities right. Living through public humiliation can be the force that aids in your standing up for yourself for the first time.
These outlooks on the negative are possible if you decide ahead of time to look for the positive.
3. Both positive and negative outlooks on life have a price; it is our choice which price we will pay.
The price a person pays for pessimism is high.
The cost of a pessimistic outlook includes worry, fear, insecurity, loss of sleep, and the decline of mental, emotional and physical health.
Our actions and reactions to these are also part of the price. Many of these consequences cut into our soul and it can become difficult to heal from them.
The price a person pays for optimism is also high.
To make the choice to change your focus when difficult circumstances come your way takes effort and energy. You cannot see the “meaning” in bad situations if you leave your mind is “neutral”.
If we allow circumstances to dictate our thoughts and actions, without processing them, we will default to the way we grew up processing things.
If you learned early in life bad things happen because you deserve them, your default thinking as an adult will be similar.
If your parents taught you that bad things happening is your fault for something you did or didn’t do, you will also think along these lines.
“What if I grew up with a positive outlook on life? Wouldn’t my “default” be a good thing?”
The answer to this is, maybe. It would be wonderful if our parents brought us up to look for the “meaning” in the bad circumstances of life but few of us did.
Sometimes people are fooled into thinking denial is a positive way to process difficulties. Yes, it might help you avoid worry but it will not combat the problem and you’ll miss out on the good that can come from adversity.
Being positive is an active choice. It means you choose to take the time and think through your circumstances and make a plan.
Not making a choice is a choice to live in the negative; often reaping bad consequences.
The Apostle Paul said it best in Philippians 4:8 (NLT)
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.