I recently listened to an interview with Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a remarkable woman, Holocaust survivor, and psychologist who has dedicated her life to helping others overcome trauma. At 90 years old, Dr. Eger published her first book entitled The Choice. It is an autobiography reminiscent of Dr. Victor Frankl‘s Man’s Search for Meaning. Both are memoirs about purpose and perspective and how instrumental these are for survival. Both Dr. Eger and Dr. Frankl were able to survive concentration camps, physically and emotionally, by exercising internal freedom, caring for others when they were in the gravest need, and assigning purpose to their existence, even when they were treated and told daily that they were worthless.
We place great value on freedom in our culture. However, by mistaking it as an external occurrence, and not an internal space, we imprison ourselves. We honor civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi and revere their steadfast fight for justice and freedom. A fight which continued, almost entirely peacefully, even though between them they were imprisoned nearly 50 times. As a society, we recognize their conflicts and honor the message of non-violence, yet we aren’t able to fully internalize it. The full story of these heroes of justice and freedom is not just told in the external actions that we admire, but also the internal freedom that they had to feel in order to continue with their message and their mission. It is the same self-determination that carried survivors like doctors Eger and Frankl through the concentration camps.
In my own life, far smaller than those aforementioned, internal freedom has been a recurring theme. Beginning in my early childhood, my mother would continuously remind me that my attitude could change, even when my circumstances could not. It’s also a recurring theme of my favorite artist, Maya Angelou, whose own life reflected the peace that come from chaos when you look deeper inside than you do outside of yourself. In her 1981 autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, she quoted Billie Holiday as saying “All I gotta do is stay black and die.”, a quote which became famous and synonymous with the celebration of internal freedom and choice. There will be consequences, yes, but there is still choice. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it is one of my favorite themes, yet truly living this free has often been a struggle for me, as it is for many. And the more that we isolate behind false freedoms like money, power, labels, and the facade of social media, the farther we distance ourselves from our own true autonomy.
When we externalize our freedom, we are always limited by someone else’s ideas. This isn’t to say that we should spend our lives in perpetual daydream when there are deadlines to be met, bills to pay, and children to feed. However, even in the most overwhelming of times, we have the choice to be victim or survivor. On the hardest of days, we have the choice to smile at a stranger or scowl at our shoes, to say the hurtful or the helpful thing. We can dwell on the past, concentrate on the future, or truly be in the present moment. We can choose to focus on our family and friends or on our phone.
One of the greatest and hardest of these choices is to turn internally or externally when making a decision or determining our own human value. There is no person, no drink or drug, no cruel or mindless act, not even a law that can liberate or limit us more than we do to ourselves. Inevitably, there are times when we make the wrong move. We will sometimes go down the dark path, falling from our own internal grace. And that is completely okay. We are all works in progress. But one of the great beauties of this amazing and complicated life is that, when we do make a bad decision, we will always have the opportunity to make another, better, choice and in each one is an invitation to authentic and enduring freedom.
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