Viktor Frankl endured one of the most disturbing chapters in our history books. He then rewrote that chapter as one of the most influential books of our time, Man's Search for Meaning.
Dr. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who, because of his Jewish heritage, was arrested and imprisoned at Auschwitz by the Nazis. He was separated from his beloved wife and family, who were eventually murdered by their captors.
Viktor Frankl postulated, and his victorious life proved, that everything could be taken from us except “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…” This profound doctrine that one could choose a response, regardless of how things appear, was born and bred in the black hell of corruption, horror and atrocity known as Auschwitz.
Immaculée Ilibagiza crouched beside seven other women in a cramped twelve square foot bathroom in Rwanda for three months. They were careful not to make a sound so bloodthirsty Hutu killing raiders would not discover them and thrust their bodies onto the piles of rotting corpses that were Immaculée’s family and fellow Tutsis.
To the accompaniment of screams and stench of death through the tiny bathroom window, Immaculée searched for and found love. Completely justified to hate the Hutus, Immaculée knew hate would only perpetuate and prolong decades of hatred, which caused the most devastating genocide of our time.
With the saintly dignity and poise of a modern-day Mother Teresa, Immaculée shares a powerful message of love and forgiveness with audiences around the world who have far less reason to hate.
Both Dr. Frankl and Immaculée knew they could not control their enemies’ actions towards them, but they could choose and control their own attitude toward their enemies.
They did not choose their prison, but they did choose and even work to obtain their perspective. In that moment, they both chose freedom – and instantly became free.
What was the choice which brought such freedom? They chose to love their haters. They chose to look past what the killers were doing and love who they were.
Though they deeply felt the terror of one immersed in the physical and psychological horror of a holocaust, they chose genuine love for everyone – especially those who were horrifically cruel.
From a normal human perspective, to choose love in such a horrifying situation seems illogical, even pathological. From a psychological perspective, however, their constructive response to the atrocities of Auschwitz and Rwanda was not only practical, it was critical to their survival and ultimate success.
This intentionally constructive response enhanced their personal power much more than hate, recrimination, or retribution ever could have. If Viktor Frankl and Immaculée Ilibagiza can successfully achieve peace through the power of a love choice in their extremely desperate circumstances, what does this imply for you and me? What can you and I do when we are feeling captured, arrested, imprisoned, stuck, or overwhelmed? Choose love. This choice is always available to us under any circumstance.
Necessity for the love choice is set up by the simple fact that we are human. We are fallible, flawed creatures who, because of our flaws, hurt each other. Desmond Tutu said it this way, “People are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition.”
The movie "42" tells the story of Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman), the first black man to play for major league baseball. In a scene from the movie, Jackie takes the field as an angry white crowd yells hateful, racially caustic rejections. A young boy is at the game with his father. The boy seems confused by the emotional intensity around him directed toward the player wearing number 42. He looks up at his screeching red-faced father. The boy hesitates, trying to decide what to do. He mimics the hateful shouts.
Desmond Tutu also said, “In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others.” Two decades of clinical psychology experience tells me he’s right. Hurt is inevitable. Sometimes we give it, sometimes we get it. It’s going to happen. When it happens, we have a choice to make.
When hurt, what are our options? If not the love choice, then what? What would be the opposite of love? Hate. The love choice, or the hate choice. What if those were our only options? Who would intentionally choose hate? If we did, how would it be done? Since we are considering it, let’s learn from experience just how this hate choice is made.
The Hate Choice - Three Simple Steps
Step One: Assume the Worst
The hate choice requires us to assume the worst. We don’t know for sure what people’s intentions, perceptions, or motives are, so we can assume malevolent intent.
Look for evidence that they are evil. This is not hard because of “confirmation bias.” We tend to see evidence which supports what we already believe, while not noticing contradicting information or interpreting it in a way that supports our belief. We selectively filter evidence in a way that supports our chosen perception.
Are flowers from our hubby evidence that he is trying to hide something? Twelve red roses become twelve read roses. Something can be read into the roses. Don’t bother to question assumptions or suspicions; that would get in the way of a hate choice. Roses don’t have to be read as an expression of love, they could just as easily be seen as a cover for guilt.
There are upsides and downsides to everything. Magnify the downsides. Focus on the negative. Some percentage of every experience is unpleasant or not to our liking. Expand that part to be the most important part of your perception. Things should have gone differently. Things should have been a lot better than they were. Use the word “should” a lot. Not only should things have been better, they probably are only going to get worse. Make predictions about additional hurt and misdeeds.
Practice paranoia. People are inherently evil. Most people spend a considerable portion of their time trying to make our life miserable. Notice differences between us and them. If they were more like us, things would be better. They are different so don’t trust them.
Step Two: Practice Pride
Weird Al Yankovic captured it in “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?” The lyrics depict someone watching television when a special report interrupts the program. A devastating earthquake. Thirty thousand people crushed to death. The television viewer asks, “Why’d they have to interrupt the Simpsons just for this? What a drag cause I was taping it and everything and now I’ll have to wait for the rerun to see the part of the show I missed. Why does this always happen to me?”
A good hate choice requires us to over-personalize the offense. It is always about us. The forces of the universe conspire against us to disrupt our life.
The hate choice is about who’s right, not so much about what’s right. We are right and they, by default, are always wrong.
When someone hurts or offends you, blame them for how you feel. It is all their fault, and you had nothing to do with it. When you get tired of blaming them, blame yourself, but then blame them that you are blaming yourself.
Rent out as much emotional and mental space as possible to whomever offended you, and then blame them for occupying so much space.
You’ve heard about taking the higher road? Take the “higher than thou” road, and mount your high horse to do it.
Absolutely refuse to forgive – forgiveness totally fouls up the hate choice. It doesn’t matter anyway, you can’t forgive someone of this.
Find out what tribe people belong to. Immaculée Ilibagiza recalls a time in school when students were subjected to ethnic roll call. Not knowing then whether she was Hutu or Tutsi, Immaculée didn’t participate in the roll call. Her angry teacher sent her home, forbidding her to return until she knew her tribe. Originally, physical differences distinguished the tribes. After years of living together, marrying each other, and raising mixed-tribe families, physical differences had become minimal and even imperceptible. Because of this, the Hutu-controlled government issued ethnic identification cards so they would know who to hate. When Hutu extremists stopped a driver, he had to show identification. If the card indicated Hutu, he was waved through with approval. If the card identified Tutsi, he got the machete.
Step Three: Think to Destroy
Our mind has the ability to come up with dozens of ways to hurt and destroy. Use your imagination as a tool of destruction.
Demand fairness and justice. In the movie National Treasure, Ben Gates (played by Nicolas Cage) sits with FBI Agent Peter Sadusky (played by Harvey Keitel) after finding the treasure. Sadusky explains two options, both of which result in Ben’s going to prison for a long time. Ben would love a solution where he doesn’t go to prison. Agent Sadusky replies, “Somebody has to go to prison.” That’s the idea! You have been wronged. Now someone must go to prison. Fantasize about ways to get even or take revenge. It will feel good to exact vengeance on those who have wronged you.
Value property over people. Exploit people to gain power, prestige, or position.
Trust your fear more than you trust your faith. Let the grievance fester and boil inside of you, fueled by replaying the offense over and over again in your mind. Re-create memories in a way that allows you to hate the offender even more. Create and re-tell a victim story where the offender is the star.
You are justified in taking offense. The hate choice is payback for being mistreated, misunderstood, misquoted, judged, or offended in any variety of ways.
When you choose hate, it makes a lot of difference how you carry yourself. The worst thing you can do is hold your head up and smile, because then you will start to feel better. If you’re going to get any satisfaction out of choosing hate, you have to hold on to your misery. Don’t cheat yourself of even one moment of feeling miserable.
The Love Choice – Three Simple Steps
Step One: Assume the Best
Assume the best about everyone, especially those who hurt you. We don’t know for sure what people’s intentions, perceptions, or motives are, so assume they have benevolent intent. Look for evidence that they are good.
Stay positive. How do you feel when life dumps on you? How would you like to feel? Focus right now on any tough situation you are going through. Now, without minimizing what you are facing, consider two ways of looking at it. Things should have been better and are about to get worse (hate choice). Things could have been worse and are about to get better (love choice). Which perspective do you choose? Which gives you the best energy to deal with whatever you are dealing with?
Things are exactly as they should be. According to principles and laws of physics, gravity, cause and effect; the litter on our lawn, our business, and our relationships are exactly where they should be. When litter is launched in a downward thrust toward the lawn, laws of physics take over. Litter ends up exactly where it should. Everything is just as it should be – by law.
People are inherently good. Most people do their best. They do the right thing and make the best choices possible. It could have been me in their spot and them in mine.
Make predictions about healing and forgiveness. Anticipate that others will also make the love choice.
Step Two: Practice Humility
The love choice helps us take things less personally. Rather than “why me,” we ask, “why not me?” which is an equally legitimate, but less frequently asked question. The Bible suggests God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Difficulty and challenge is universal. It happens to, and for, everyone.
We know we’re right. It’s not that we think we’re right, we know we’re right. This has us treating each other horribly. We can be absolutely wrong and still know we’re right. Exchange being right for being open.
My friend Cam invited me to a fire walk. Even as I filled out the waiver, I figured I was just there to observe this crazy ritual. I know about fire. I know I’m right. As the night unfolds, Cam reiterates, “You can walk on burning coals with bare feet, and your feet remain in perfect condition.” My hate-choice reaction to his statement was “Yeah, right!” I know I’m right about fire.
How many times had I walked on fire? Zero. I was proud of that number. How many times had Cam walked on fire? Probably hundreds, and he had taken twenty thousand people across the coals at his events over twenty years. Yet with destructive pride I knew I was right, and he was wrong.
The love choice can feel like stepping onto coals, intentionally acknowledging what we already “know” may be way off. It’s a leap of faith. I walked the fire three times that night; first to leap, second to give up being right, and third to embrace being open. What else do I know for sure, about my grievances or limitations, about which I am dead wrong?
Humbly ask, “What is the most loving choice?” Is my choice really a hate choice disguised as a love choice? Bruce is a gay friend who invited us to attend his wedding. With our conservative religious background, my wife and I felt stretched by the prospect of attending. Although we love Bruce, traditional hate choices came up as options. Conveniently, Bruce had chosen the same weekend for his wedding as had our niece. Awesome! Now we can pretend to make a love choice. We would love to go, but our niece’s wedding is that same weekend. Everyone understands that we have to put family first. We’ll wish Bruce well privately, without the awkwardness of publicly appearing at a gay wedding.
In a perfect turn of events, our niece postpones her wedding, suddenly presenting the choice again. What is the most loving choice? What will people think if we show up? What message do we send our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors? Pretty good questions. Do I choose love? Or, do I choose hate when I have disapproving opinions about other people’s choices? The hate choice sometimes masquerades as a love choice, when really we know somewhere inside of us it is still the hate choice.
Offense is an equal-opportunity opportunity grantor. It gives the offender an opportunity to repent, and the offended an opportunity to forgive. If either does neither, it creates another opportunity for both to do the other.
Step Three: Think to Create
In making the love choice, consider what we can change or control and what we cannot. As acknowledged in the Serenity Prayer, penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
One thing we can control is our perception. Perception guides our choice about what to do—or not do—about our situation. Do we allow a default (usually negative or hate choice) reaction, or do we choose love?
What happens to us is not nearly as important as how we react to whatever happens to us. We have the power to choose how we see things. From that choice we either build or destroy. Charles Benvegar captured the choice nicely in his poem, “The Wreckers”.
I watched them tear a building down,
A gang of men in a busy town.
With a ho-heave-ho and lusty yell,
They swung a beam and a sidewall fell.
I asked the foreman, "Are these men skilled,
As the men you'd hire if you had to build?"
He gave me a laugh and said, "No indeed!
Just common labor is all I need.
I can easily wreck in a day or two
What builders have taken a year to do."
I thought to myself as I went my way,
Which of these two roles have I tried to play?
Am I a builder who works with care,
Measuring life by the rule and square?
Am I shaping my deeds by a well-made plan,
Patiently doing the best I can?
Or am I a wrecker who walks the town,
Content with the labor of tearing down?
The magnitude of the hate choice, or of the love choice, can be subtle or severe. There are no neutral choices – it falls on one side or the other, a little or a lot. Unless altered by some contrary force, default is downhill. Mountains erode, buildings crumble, roads deteriorate, and bridges eventually collapse. Rain falls, hits the ground, and flows downhill. Down is default. So it is with our choices. Without intentional choice, hurt leads to hate. The hate choice requires no effort or positive power.
What do we do with those who love us? Love them! That’s easy.
What do we do with those who hate us? Love them! That’s hard.
Our mind is built for hard work, and like a well-bred workhorse, the well-trained mind loves tough challenges. As we practice choosing love, it becomes a habit.
Elevation requires lift. Lift requires positive pressure. Sustained positive pressure will get water to flow uphill. Sustained positive effort creates the changes we need. The love choice is higher ground. The view is fantastic. Love lifts and heals hurt. As we firmly, but kindly order our mind to do so, our mind will, after some initial resistance, work very hard to support the love choice. The more painful or difficult the situation, the harder it is to choose love, and the more positively life altering it is when we do so.
By Dr. Paul H. Jenkins
About Paul H. Jenkins, Ph.D.
Dr. Paul Jenkins works with organizations and individuals to establish and maintain habitual patterns of positive perception and focus that increase happiness, engagement, productivity, profit, and ultimate achievement of professional and personal life missions. With two decades of experience as a professional psychologist, Dr. Paul (as he is known to clients and his laughing, learning audiences) lays out the how and the why behind the art and science of being constructive in an often destructive environment. It is like having an owner’s manual for your brain – one you can actually read, understand, and apply. You understand your own mind and improve its functioning on purpose.
His deeply thoughtful writing, engaging and fun keynote addresses, powerfully practical breakout seminars, individual and corporate coaching and counseling are profound and simple. His clients, readers, and audiences get an iron grip on powerful psychological principles that make an immediate difference in their personal, family, and professional lives.
Dr. Paul’s book Pathological Positivity and its pocket-sized companion Portable Positivity, are available now to power up your positivity. Corporate and group discounts can be arranged to provide these books to all members of your organization
Paul H. Jenkins, Ph.D.
Live On purpose
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