Everything can be taken from a man but . . .
the last of the human freedoms ”to choose one s attitude
in any given set of circumstances, to choose one s way. [ 1]
It was nearly midnight. It was time to jot down his final thoughts before darkness fell around him. In just a few minutes, the lights would go out and his cell would no longer be a writer s study ; it would be a stark, confining dungeon . For almost twenty years , this had been his home, his office, and his prison . But even though he knew it was not likely that he would ever see real freedom again, he remained true to his core values and life goals. He wrote several book-length manuscripts, stayed in touch with his loved ones, and persevered with optimism . His defiant human spirit prevailed.
With a great deal of pride , I can tell you that he is my great-uncle, General Stylianos Pattakos, a Greek patriot who served his country as a military officer and political leader through some of the most turbulent times in modern Greek history. Among other things, my uncle Stelios was
one of three officers responsible for setting up a military regime in Greece in 1967. He served in various ways, including as the country s vice president, until another government takeover in 1974.
It was because of his role in the so-called Greek junta that Uncle Stelios was charged with the crime of treason and imprisoned. Thankfully, there was enough support for him as a person and as a Greek patriot that eventually his role in history was reconsidered and his life spared. In 1995, he was released and was finally able to share his story.
Like the renowned Viktor Frankl, Nelson Mandela, U.S. Senator John McCain, and Burma s Aung Sang Suu Chi ”along with unknown numbers of other courageous and imprisoned people ”Uncle Stelios was challenged to understand the deeper meaning of freedom even as he dealt with the loss of personal liberties and human dignity . In other words, despite his physical incarceration, my uncle Stelios was called upon to rely on his will to meaning in order to gain a different kind of freedom ”one that distinctly came from within himself ”so that he could survive his long ordeal in prison.
There is a story involving Nelson Mandela that also serves to illuminate the relationship between personal freedom and imprisonment. The day that Mandela was being released from prison on Robben Island, Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas, was watching the news. He quickly called his wife and daughter and said, You must see this, it is historical. As Mandela stepped out, Clinton saw a flush of anger on his face as he looked at the people watching; then it disappeared.
Later, when Clinton was president of the United States and Mandela was president of South Africa, the two leaders met and Clinton told about his observation during Mandela s release from prison. And, because Mandela had always been a model of reconciliation with no spirit of revenge or negativism, President Clinton candidly asked him for an explanation of what seemed to have occurred on that historic day. President Mandela replied, Yes, you are right. When I was in prison, the son of a guard started a Bible Study and I attended; . . . and that day when I stepped out of prison and looked at the people observing, a flush of anger hit me with the thought that they had robbed me of twenty-seven years. Then the Spirit of Jesus said to me, ˜Nelson, while you were in prison you were free, now that you are free, don t become their prisoner . [ 2]
It s neither proper nor possible to compare the ways in which each of these people endured unthinkable experiences. But in their very presence in our lives, they represent real people who experienced real suffering; and each, in his or her own way, triumphed. These people were compelled, each under uniquely dreadful circumstances, to find meaning within their imprisoned lives. Stripped of most of the freedoms that we take for granted, as prisoners they were left with what Frankl called the last of the human freedoms ” the freedom to choose their attitude in response to their life circumstances.
This freedom to choose is ours in every aspect of our lives. Yet it can be difficult, even when our lives are comparably safe and perceivably free. In some way, we all struggle with things beyond our control. Bringing them under our control, even if only in an attitudinal sense, is where our freedom takes shape, no matter what the circumstances.
Christopher Reeve had it all. In addition to his early success on Broadway, he was known all over the world for his leading role in Superman, the movie that made him a star. At the age of 42 years, his acting career was bright and his life was filled with unlimited possibilities. Indeed, he was passionate about life on all levels and was intent on experiencing it with gusto. An all-around athlete, Reeve loved sailing and was a skilled equestrian, skier, ice skater, and tennis player.
On Memorial Day of 1995, however, the world held its breath as Christopher Reeve struggled for life. Reeve had been thrown from his horse in an accident that broke his neck and left him unable to move or breathe. The man who was Superman had become a quadriplegic. But, as he wrote in his bestselling autobiography, appropriately entitled Still Me, I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. [ 3] And so continues the story of the real Superman.
In the years since the accident, Reeve has not only survived, but thrived ”fighting for himself, for his family, and for thousands of people with spinal cord injuries in the United States and around the world. An inspirational force, Reeve displayed his choice to maintain a positive attitude toward his situation on Larry King Live , just ten months after his accident: I am a very lucky guy, he said. I can testify before Congress. I can raise funds. I can raise awareness. [ 4]
Importantly, Christopher Reeve has credited his wife Dana and his three children for quickly lifting him out of an initial morass of hopelessness. You learn the stuff of your life (sports, movies) . . . that s not the essence of your existence, he said. My relationships were always good. Now they have transcended. That s why I can honestly say I am a lucky man, he said. He goes further:
When a catastrophe happens, it s easy to feel so sorry for yourself that you can t see anybody around you. But the way out is through your relationships [emphasis added]. The way out of that misery or obsession is to focus more on what your little boy needs or what your teenagers need or what other people around you need. It s very hard to do, and often you have to force yourself. But that is the answer to the dilemma of being frozen ”at least it s the answer I found. [ 5 ]
As we see in Christopher Reeve s case, it was the fact that he exercised his freedom to choose his attitude about his life and work that enabled him to take the bold steps of confronting the unforeseen changes in his life path . In so doing, he was able to do more than simply cope with his personal suffering and loss. By exercising his freedom to choose, Reeve unleashed his potential for self-healing and discovered a path to authentic meaning that may have gone unnoticed. As a byproduct of his conscious choice, he also was able to remind us that life is not to be taken for granted, but to be lived fully with passion, curiosity , and gratitude. [ 6 ]
In life s most difficult situations, it is our capacity to cope and personal resiliency that are put to the ultimate test. It s then that the freedom to choose our attitude takes center stage. To exercise this freedom effectively, however, we must be able to view any given situation from different vantage points. We must know who we are and be flexible and courageous enough to make a shift when necessary, even if it means moving away from what is expected or considered normal.
The responsibility for choosing our attitude lies solely and soundly with each one of us. It cannot be transferred to someone else. I have made this claim over the years to various corporate and government clients , especially in cases where workers, including executives and managers, seem intent on bitching and moaning about their working conditions but don t appear willing to do anything about them. I m reminded of the Far Side cartoon that shows people mingling at a Part of the Problem Convention because it illustrates to an absurd level how limited and negative our thinking can become. We celebrate our freedom to choose our attitude at work only when we decide to move from being a part of the problem to becoming a part of the solution.
And in our personal lives, too, it doesn t work to wait for solutions magically to arrive ; we have to be a part of the solution. NBA coach Phil Jackson, in his book Sacred Hoops, cautions us to remember that the best way to realize your dreams is to wake up! In other words, being part of any solution means taking action.
Through our life experiences and the investment that we make in personal growth and development, our repertoire of coping skills can and usually does change over time. We invest in ourselves ”through such things as training or counseling ”and the return on this investment is a renewed effectiveness in dealing with life s situations.
Unless there was a 100% guarantee that I will be killed here on the spot, and I will never survive this concentration camp last part of my life, unless there is any guarantee, I m responsible for living from now on in a way that I may make use of the slightest chance of survival, ignoring the great danger surrounding me in also all the following camps I had been sent. This, as it were, a coping, not mechanism, but a coping maxim I adopted, I espoused, at that moment. [ 7 ]
In Frankl s case, had he not adopted his coping beliefs upon his arrival at Auschwitz, he might not have been able to sustain his optimistic and passionate view about his chances of survival. By choosing his fundamental attitude, which he called his coping maxim, the coping mechanisms in his psychiatrist tool kit then became more meaningful and effective. His decision to experience meaning under desperate circumstances enabled him to act on his own behalf as well as on behalf of others.
What lessons can we learn from Frankl s experience? Think about difficult situations in your life or work in which your attitude played a defining role in how well you were able to cope. Think about the coping mechanisms that were at your disposal. Did you choose to use them? Why or why not? How effective were you in coping with the situation? Now ask yourself a more fundamental question: What guides your coping skills? What principle or principles underlie your decision making in complex and challenging situations? It can be difficult to articulate these deeper ideals and values in our lives. If nothing definitive comes immediately to mind, jot down your initial thoughts on this question for later use in framing a more complete answer.
Ponder also the times when you observed people who were guided by their coping skills in difficult decision-making situations. I am sure you can identify cases of extraordinary resolve by your co-workers , family members , and friends during times of hardship ”personal or professional. Although these situations may not have been as catastrophic as that experienced by Viktor Frankl, they may still have been formidable challenges to overcome or survive.
In the workplace, it is clear that some individuals are able to cope more easily than others with the outpouring of professional changes in today s job market. Corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, new technologies, career or job shifts, and the trauma of unemployment are all part of our work lives. All of us can tell stories that illustrate the many ways in which people respond to these challenges. In the final analysis, the most capable, responsible, and resilient individuals have adopted, consciously or unconsciously, a coping maxim and skills to guide and drive them towards meaningful resolution.
When we choose our attitude in light of what I would call true optimism, we actually make three choices: (1) we choose a positive attitude about the situation at hand; (2) we choose an attitude that supports a form of creative visualization about what s possible; and (3) we choose an attitude that generates passion for the action that makes the possible become a reality. In other words, being a true optimist actually requires more than positive thinking. Positive affirmations, like good intentions, aren t enough; we need to be able to visualize the possibilities that may result from our choice of attitude, and be able to feel the emotion or passion behind our choice of attitude that will help us actualize such possibilities. We each have the freedom to make these choices, but it is amazing how frequently we don t. We either choose to abstain from taking full responsibility for what should be our conscious choices or choose, albeit unconsciously, to remain frozen in thought patterns that may no longer serve our highest good. In short, we become a prisoner of our thoughts.
In my work, I have encountered clients, co-workers, friends, and family members who are stuck in old habits of self-imprisonment. They display the power of negative thinking about a given work or life situation, assuring that they could never visualize a better tomorrow. Or they are steeped in so much fear of the unknown that they have essentially immobilized themselves , effectively avoiding any kind of risk. The ultimate freedom to choose their attitude and their future, no matter how desperate they may be, seems as foreign to them as a life in which they could feel truly fulfilled and happy.
In the workplace, I have seen many instances in which organizational change has resulted in people losing their jobs. In one particular case, I had a friend, Tom, who had been let go by a high-tech firm after many years of faithful service. Although Tom clearly did not agree with the company s decision to release him, and he felt that his value was neither acknowledged nor fully understood , he realized that he was given no choice but to move on with his life.
Ironically, Tom had discussed leaving the company many times in the past, but could not bring himself to make the decision to leave on his own. And while he felt positive about his chances for a new position or new work, he was unable to visualize the possibilities. He even shared with me that he could not see himself doing something else. When the company s decision to release him finally became a reality, he was forced to change his attitude.
For the most part, he said, My mind is racing 1,000 miles an hour ”which, in itself, is absolutely great. Maybe uncertainty brings out the best in us.
Forced to take a leap, Tom, by changing his attitude about his freedom, was able to change his attitude about his future. He is now combining several opportunities that more deeply reflect his passion, values, and interests. Ironically, it took the company s decision to let him go before he was able to see the possibility of realizing his meaning potential, his will to meaning.
To show that it is never too late, let me share another example of how the freedom to choose your attitude can be exercised in a work- related situation. One of my good friends and colleagues is a creativity consultant in her late eighties. Like Viktor Frankl, Rebecca is yet another source of insight and inspiration, especially for those a lot younger who are facing changing circumstances. Rebecca, due to a severe hip injury , had to be confined to a wheelchair, which severely restricted her ability to move around, travel, and generally live her active life. Not to be dismayed, she remained positive about her plight; she visualized a redesigned work situation for herself and took action to bring it about ”all at the age of 89 years young! Rebecca still consults with individuals and organizations, but with a renewed focus on disabled workers. More than simply positive thinking, hers is a case of true optimism. She exercised her freedom to choose her attitude under difficult circumstances and expanded her life creatively in yet a new way.
We all have this ultimate freedom but, again, each of us must make an active choice to exercise it. The first questions to ask yourself when facing a challenging situation are: Are you aware of your current attitude toward the situation? Are you willing to change it? This is a subtle process because often we may be unaware of our attitude toward something (or someone) and/or we may not really want to address the possibility of changing our attitude, let alone be willing to do so. With this in mind, here is a quick exercise that can help you address such issues, not only by opening up new possibilities but also by helping you to exercise your freedom to choose your attitude.
To begin with, think of a situation at work or in your personal life that is or was especially stressful, negative, or challenging for you. Now, take a deep breath, and write down ten positive things that could result ”or did result ” from this situation. Notice any resistance you may have to doing this. (Sometimes it s easier to stay mad, or self- righteous , or right.) But just let your mind loose and entertain the possibilities. Write down what first comes to mind. Continue to stretch your imagination and suspend judgment, listing whatever comes into your consciousness, no matter how silly, far out, or unrealistic your thoughts may appear to be. Feel completely free to determine or define what positive means to you.
After you have completed your list, look at it closely, and let the positive become possible in your frame of reference regarding the difficult situation. Sometimes this is very hard to do. It requires a letting go of old ways of thinking, pain, remorse, disappointment, frustration, perhaps even grief and anguish. But it levels your playing field of possibilities for the future. Experience has shown that this exercise opens you to deep optimism no matter how challenging your circumstances.
The first time I was introduced to this exercise, I was given the following instruction: List Ten Positive Things If You Died Today. I was unaccustomed to discussing, let alone exploring, the possibilities of my death, and thought the exercise totally absurd. It turned out to be quite the opposite . In fact, the participants at my session, including Yours Truly, had a great deal of fun with this exercise once we allowed ourselves the freedom to let go. Most of us were eventually able to see the silver lining in something even as catastrophic as our death. Our group energy increased dramatically, and we all had opportunities to learn new things about ourselves, each other, and the often-taboo topic of death. I have since used this exercise with hundreds of client groups with similar success.
Now, if we can find something positive to say about our own death, it should be easy to find something positive to say about our work situation, family life, and so forth, don t you think? My experience over many years is that no matter how catastrophic the event, whether work-related or personal, eventually there is always something positive that results from it.
Let me share a personal experience that may help to clarify what I mean. Years ago, while still a full-time professor , I was driving to campus early one morning to teach a class. It was a very peaceful morning, there was no traffic, and I was enjoying the solitude as I listened to relaxing music on the radio. I remember driving down a tree-lined street, with a grass island in center, that had cars parked tightly on both sides. And, coming up the street toward me was a school bus van, the only other moving vehicle in sight. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, I saw the van veer out of control and crash into one of the parked cars on its side of the street. I couldn t believe it! Immediately, I stopped my car and rushed over to the van to see what I could do.
The front of the van was crushed and I could see and smell smoke. While I prayed that someone in the neighborhood had heard the crash and called 911, I pulled the driver, a young woman , out of the vehicle and, as carefully as I could, carried her to a nearby lawn. I could tell she was injured and, even more, upset by what had happened . She began to cry as she said, Oh no, what am I going to do? I just got this job; my parents are going to kill me!
Still waiting for someone, preferably an ambulance, to arrive and help with the situation, I was at a loss for what to do at that particular moment. I wanted to keep the young lady as calm as possible. Without really thinking about the consequences, I looked her straight in the eyes and said: Let s list ten positive things about this accident. I started with: (1) there were no children in the school van; (2) there was nobody in the parked car that was struck; (3) neither vehicle had exploded or was on fire (at least not at that point); (4) somebody was around to help her in her moment of need; and (5) she s still alive and conscious. You get the picture. In any event, by the time we identified only a few of the items on this list of positives about the accident, the driver actually began to smile! And, importantly, when the ambulance finally arrived, and I explained to the emergency medical technician what we had done while waiting, he said that her shift in attitude had most likely prevented her from going into shock .
A key lesson to be learned from this experience? Even if you don t see the cognitive or emotional benefits of maintaining a positive attitude toward a situation you are facing, be it at work or in your personal life, please consider the physiological benefits. One of the real powers of positive thinking is that it is good for your health!
From the perspective of work, here now are some questions that have been posed in a number of settings:
List ten positive things that would happen if you lost your job today.
List ten positive things that would happen if your department was eliminated today.
List ten positive things that would happen from a breakdown in a production line.
List ten positive things that would happen if the work week was changed from 5-days/8-hours per day to 4-days/10-hours per day.
List ten positive things that would happen from a 20% budget cut.
In all of these situations there were benefits, both in terms of process and product outcomes . First of all, everyone involved acknowledged that they were free to choose their attitude and view their situation from many different perspectives; second, no matter how desperate the situation or condition confronted, everyone acknowledged that something positive could result, even in the situations that seemed ridiculous at first. Also, in responding to these questions, the positive energy among individuals, especially in work groups or teams , increased dramatically. The varied opportunities to view the situation or condition in a new light increased, as did the opportunities to resolve the challenges. Through this exercise, the participants learned an effective way to release themselves, at least partly, from their self-imposed thought prisons.
Before moving on, let me share with you a unique application of the Ten Positive Things exercise in the workplace. The situation involved a client training session that I was conducting in Alaska with the U.S. Forest Service. At the end of the first day of a two-day session, I overheard comments from one of the more macho male participants, Paul, that he was not at all interested in the training and didn t feel that it was relevant to him. The Ten Positive Things exercise had been introduced and practiced that afternoon and Paul was not impressed.
The next morning, when I returned to the training venue , I noticed Paul sitting beside two female participants, laughing and giggling. When I asked him what had happened, he reported that when he went home the evening after our session, he was shocked to learn that his teenage daughter had received a tongue piercing and was now sporting a new piece of jewelry in her mouth! Angry and upset, Paul argued with his daughter and wife; in short, he had a terrible night with his family. When he returned to the training session the next day, looking tired and depressed, he confessed to his two female co-workers what had happened. Immediately, they asked him to list the Ten Positive Things from his daughter s tongue piercing! Working together, they not only came up with many potential positives to be gained from his stressful experience, but also fostered an entirely new (and positive) attitude toward his daughter and the training session! Indeed, things could have been worse for his teenage daughter ”doing this exercise put this situation in perspective for Paul and ultimately helped him change his attitude about it.
As a human phenomenon , however, freedom is all too human. Human freedom is finite freedom. Man is not free from conditions. But he is free to take a stand in regard to them. The conditions do not completely condition him. Within limits it is up to him whether or not he succumbs and surrenders to the conditions. He may as well rise above them and by so doing open up and enter the human dimension . . . Ultimately, man is not subject to the conditions that confront him; rather, these conditions are subject to his decision. Wittingly or unwittingly, he decides whether he will face up or give in, whether or not he will let himself be determined by the conditions. [ 8 ]
In our lives we have courageous role models to learn from as we explore the vast reaches of our own freedom. Many are public heroes, honored by history or celebrity status. Others are to be found in our friends, in our families, and in our communities. My own Uncle Stelios, through his choices, his attitudes, and his commitment to his own values and future, embodies for me the many facets of Viktor Frankl s meaning-centered philosophy. Although we may not be totally free from the various conditions or situations that confront us ”in our personal and work lives ”the important thing is that we can choose how we respond, at the very least through our choice of attitude. According to Frankl, this is not only our right as full human beings; it is our full human beingness to be free. All we have to do is resist the temptation of remaining a prisoner of our thoughts and choose this freedom, no matter what.
Recall a situation in your work life in which you consciously exercised the freedom to choose your attitude about it (this may even be your situation today). Perhaps you were faced with a difficult boss or co-worker. Or, perhaps you were confronted by a change in job. What was your attitude at first toward the situation? How did it change? What, if anything, did you actually do about changing your attitude? As you think about the situation now, what did you learn from it? What would you have done differently?
Meaning Question: How do you maintain a positive attitude at work or in the workplace?
For Further Reflection: How might Frankl s notion of a coping maxim (an overall belief about coping) help you find greater meaning and fulfillment at work? Think also about how you might use this technique in a positive and constructive way with your colleagues or co-workers.
[ 1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston: Beacon Press, 4th Edition, 1992), p 75.
[ 2] I am indebted to Dr. Myron S. Augsburger for this account. See also: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995).
[ 3] Christopher Reeve, Still Me (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999). p. 267.
[ 4] Larry King Live, February 22, 1996.
[ 5 ] Reeve, Still Me, pp. 3 “4.
[ 6 ] See: Christopher Reeve, Nothing is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life (New York: Random House, 2002).
[ 7 ] Frankl, keynote address, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Anaheim, California, December 12 “16, 1990.
[ 8 ] Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967), p. 3.