The Choice?

I’ve just finished what I personally believe to be the most powerful and life-affirming book I’ve ever read. It’s called “The Choice” and it’s written by a (now) 92 year old psychologist of Hungarian descent, called Edith Eger. As a teenager growing up in a Jewish household, she experienced antisemitism, and then from 16 years old, endured first-hand the hell that was Auschwitz. Robbed of her parents, her boyfriend, her basic human rights and dignity, she could have survived the experience as a very angry and embittered woman, and who could blame her if she had? But somehow she emerged full of love and compassion and the desire to help others. She attributed that to focusing on what was within her, her own sense of self. And her words struck a real chord with me. We don’t always have any control over the challenges that life has a nasty habit of throwing at us. But we do have a choice in how we deal with them.

Many people experience periods in their lives which are incredibly painful and traumatic. The memories those experiences can evoke, and the feelings and emotions generated can of course massively impact how a person deals with situations in their current life….and how a person chooses to deal with a specific incident isn’t always the healthiest option for them. Responses ranging from anger to avoidance can actually be unhelpful if these are based on outdated notions which may have served us well in the past, but aren’t particularly relevant in the here and now.

And while I’m on the subject, I don’t see anger itself as necessarily a bad thing. If life has dealt you a poor hand, or someone has treated you poorly, anger is a completely justifiable and healthy emotion, provided that it acts as a catalyst for change. If that anger results in you speaking up assertively about a wrongdoing, then go ahead. Express that anger in a safe and controlled way. But if you find that your anger relates to someone or something that occurred in the past, which you didn’t deal with at the time, ask yourself whether holding onto it is really doing you any good? Or is it impacting your psychological and emotional wellbeing and leaving you static – think of it as having one foot in the past, another in the present. Unless you choose to have both feet in the present, how do you get to move anywhere?

The truth is, of course, that nobody can change the past, and sadly, there isn’t a counsellor out there with a magic wand. There have been so many times when I wish I did, but all I got when I qualified was a bit of paper. So whilst counselling cannot change the past, it can offer the opportunity to gain new perspectives on aspects of the client’s life, in a safe and non – judgemental space. And when the client lets go of those outdated notions, that’s when the “magic” happens. It’s liberating. It’s the point when you know that the client has started to see themselves as a survivor rather than a victim. They no longer define themselves by their past experiences but by the possibilities the future may offer. The past is something we can learn from but we can choose not get stuck there.

And ultimately, I think this is what Edith Eger was trying to teach us in her wonderful book. She got through Auschwitz by completely focusing on survival day by day. She could have chosen to give in, she could have chosen to live out the rest of her life in anger and bitterness. But she somehow realised that she was greater than the sum of her experiences. And so are you.

Issy McCann, August 2020