Time to re­think how we view our tragedies

Right at­ti­tude helps us eas­ily han­dle life’s ob­sta­cles.

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - Walt Shel­ton Walt Shel­ton is an en­vi­ron­men­tal at­tor­ney, part-time pro­fes­sor at Bay­lor Law School and adult Sun­day School teacher at High­land Park Bap­tist Church in Austin.

In one ear I heard gen­tle, em­pa­thetic of­fers to help me in a dif­fi­cult time of tran­si­tion, but in the other, harsh di­rec­tives that it was my “re­spon­si­bil­ity to get my par­ents back to­gether.”

Such was my worst hol­i­day sea­son ever. I han­dled it poorly. I re­treated, in­clud­ing from those reach­ing out in love. I was mis­er­able. It was Christ­mas 1973 — my first af­ter my par­ents’ un­ex­pected split, which frac­tured the warm, se­cure home I had known all my life to that point.

As an im­ma­ture and shaken 17-year-old, I chose to with­draw that hol­i­day.

I spent as much of the sea­son as pos­si­ble alone on a re­mote golf course while oth­ers seemed to join hap­pily with their fam­ily and friends. If there had been ready ac­cess to a cave, I sup­pose I would have used it as my Christ­mas dwelling.

Sev­eral years of heal­ing later while in grad­u­ate school, I read Vik­tor Frankl’s “From Death Camp to Ex­is­ten­tial­ism.” This book is typ­i­cally found to­day un­der the less cap­ti­vat­ing ti­tle “Man’s Search for Mean­ing.”

I was ini­tially in­tro­duced to Frankl in a psychology of re­li­gion class. My pro­fes­sor char­ac­ter­ized him as the founder of the third Vi­en­nese school of psy­chother­apy. What­ever! In­stead of fo­cus­ing on what seemed to me stale com­par­isons to Freud and Adler, I took Frankl’s book to heart. It has been part of my life ever since.

I read it ev­ery year and em­brace this hol­i­day tra­di­tion of read­ing and re-read­ing a truly mean­ing­ful book. It al­ways en­cour­ages me to make bet­ter at­ti­tu­di­nal choices and re­spond in a health­ier man­ner to all of life’s cir­cum­stances, in­clud­ing the most dif­fi­cult ones.

Frankl’s cen­tral idea is sim­ple and pro­found but not al­ways easy to im­ple­ment: What­ever our cir­cum­stances, we are free to choose our at­ti­tude and re­sponse. Although events and other peo­ple can hurt and even dev­as­tate us, we make our own choice of per­spec­tive.

Ac­cord­ing to Frankl: “Ev­ery­thing can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of hu­man free­doms, to choose one’s at­ti­tude in any given set of cir­cum­stances, to choose one’s way.” Many of us would bris­tle at this sug­ges­tion be­cause no one has known our par­tic­u­lar pain and the re­lated sever­ity of our prob­lems. To bor­row a le­gal con­cept, how­ever, Frankl has “stand­ing” to com­ment on pos­i­tive at­ti­tu­di­nal elec­tion. He sur­vived Auschwitz. His death camp ex­pe­ri­ences and ob­ser­va­tions of oth­ers formed the ba­sis of his ideas and sug­ges­tions.

Frankl’s Holo­caust ac­count is unique be­cause he fo­cuses on sto­ries of per­sonal re­ac­tion and re­lated sur­vival ef­forts as op­posed to cat­a­loging de­tails of atroc­i­ties. Rabbi Harold Kush­ner ob­serves that “Frankl’s con­cern is less with the ques­tion of why most died than it is with the ques­tion of why any­one at all sur­vived.” Kush­ner then fo­cuses on one of Frankl’s key ideas: “Life is not pri­mar­ily a quest for plea­sure ... or a quest for power ... but a quest for mean­ing.”

Sim­i­lar to Frankl, Kush­ner’s life ob­ser­va­tions are wor­thy of our at­ten­tion. His “When Bad Things Hap­pen to Good Peo­ple” was the re­sult of his son’s se­ri­ous ill­ness and all too brief life. In this and other works, Kush­ner con­sis­tently high­lights the im­por­tance of how peo­ple re­spond to chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions and sees God present in their gen­tle, lov­ing, car­ing and gra­cious re­sponse ac­tion.

In a mov­ing pas­sage from his book, Frankl re­calls how vivid men­tal im­ages of his wife helped him cope with and es­cape from day-to-day dif­fi­cul­ties. He did not know where she was or her fate, but thoughts of her made her “more lu­mi­nous than the sun” and helped him con­clude that the “sal­va­tion of man is through love and in love.”

I have had a for­tu­nate and charmed life in so many ways. Peo­ple who truly love and care for me, es­pe­cially my wife, chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, brother, and close friends. Although my chal­lenges in life pale rel­a­tive to those of oth­ers, I have my own dark places and deep wounds. Those stem­ming from an un­ex­pected bro­ken home many years ago still sting. With God’s help through oth­ers, how­ever, I en­deavor to choose an at­ti­tude and a way with true mean­ing.

Read­ing Frankl’s mas­ter­piece an­nu­ally helps me make bet­ter choices and wakes me up to real pri­or­i­ties in my life with a fresh new year in sight.

Years ago I told a Chris­tian friend that two of my fa­vorite au­thors were Vik­tor Frankl and Harold Kush­ner. He was sur­prised: “Why are Jewish writ­ers your fa­vorite?” I gave a nice, lame re­sponse while think­ing his ques­tion was odd. Af­ter all, we as Chris­tians en­deavor to live in a man­ner wor­thy of the teach­ings and life model of a Jewish rabbi who pointed to God as love — in all sea­sons and for all peo­ple.

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