Reframing Adversity as a Challenge to Act in Alignment with Your Values
The science is unequivocal: when we change the way we look at a stressful situation, it not only changes the situation itself, it also changes the way we feel about it, and even the way we sense it.
No one understood this better than Viktor Frankl.
In his famous holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, which has now sold over 16 million copies worldwide, three startling words surface repeatedly: “test,” “challenge” and “opportunity.”
Why do they show up so often?
Because they succinctly capture how Frankl chose to view his horrifying circumstances.
Out of all the unfathomable experiences he endured in four different death camps, he said his very “deepest experience” happened the day he arrived at Auschwitz.
After being escorted by armed SS guards from the train station through the camp, past electrically-charged barbed wire fences to a cleansing station, he and his fellow inmates were forced to strip naked for disinfecting showers.
Frankl already knew that all of his loved ones would likely die in the camps — his mother, father, brother and wife were, in fact, all murdered by the Nazis — but now, on top of everything else, he realized he was also going to lose the manuscript of his first book, “his mental child” and “life’s work,” which he had hidden in the lining of his coat.
Would no trace of his life be left behind?
After relinquishing his coat and showering, however, he was forced to pluck a worn-out jacket from a pile of clothes left behind by inmates who had already been sent to the gas chambers. And when he put his hand into the pocket of his new coat, he discovered a single page torn out of a book. It was the Shema Yisrael, the most important Jewish prayer. Frankl knew it was recited each morning and night by observant Jews. He also knew that many children recited the prayer before going to sleep at night, and that many others whispered it as their dying words.
How did Frankl interpret this occurrence?
“As a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper.”
In other words, he chose to view his lost manuscript, which contained a full articulation of his philosophy of living, as though it was his own personal prayer book that he was now being challenged not just to write down but, more importantly, to integrate and embody. Could he live his philosophy? Instead of just saying what to do, could he do what he had said? Could he, in short, practice what he preached? Could he walk his talk?
Reframing Adversity as a Test or Challenge
This was Frankl’s ingenious way of reframing his entire horrifying experience in the death camps. Did it change his actual circumstances? Not one iota. How could it. Yet it did radically transform his relationship to his circumstances.
The death camps remained an unspeakable nightmare, but they also became, in his eyes, a gruelling test of his character; they continued to be a literal hell-on-earth, but now he also saw them as the ultimate challenge of his ability to live in alignment with his values, regardless of the circumstances.
This central “thought” that Frankl felt challenged to live was the same thought that lay at the very heart of his lost manuscript: the idea that “meaning heals,” that clarifying our core values and then acting in harmony with them is one of the most vital and therapeutic things we can do, especially in predicaments we can neither escape nor change.
In fact, Frankl would go on to conclude that the most common characteristic of the inmates who either survived or “died free” was that they lived for the future by clarifying an aim, a purpose or “an ultimate goal” for their lives.
Why was this so important? Because, for Frankl, it was the “last of the human freedoms” — the one thing no one could take away from them, even there: the freedom to view their horrific situations in whatever ways were most conducive to their survival, the liberty to confer their own freely-chosen meanings on their unimaginable plights, or what Frankl simply called their “attitude.”
Values Are Freely-Chosen
Frankl, for instance, specifically chose to look at the death camps as a challenge of his ability to act consistently with two of his most deeply-cherished values: being helpful and being loving.
After falling ill while working as a manual labourer, he was in the sick quarters one day when a doctor rushed in and asked him to volunteer for medical duties in another camp full of typhus patients. Against the advice of his friends, and despite the fact that almost none of his medical colleagues offered their services, he decided to volunteer. Why? Because he knew he could do more good trying to help his fellow inmates as a doctor than he would losing his life as an unproductive labourer. And if he did contract typhus and die? Well then, he writes, “there might at least be some sense in my death.”
One afternoon he even had the chance to escape — he had both the means and the timing — but when he saw the sad and hopeless looks in his patients’ eyes during his last round, he changed his mind and chose to stay, knowing full well they would all probably perish. Ironically, in freely choosing to remain within the walls of the concentration camp, he felt “an inward peace that [he] had never experienced before.”
Frankl also viewed the camps as a test of his ability to remain loving. One early morning before the sun came up, he was on a forced march to a work camp when a man in the column next to him stumbled and furtively whispered to him something about their wives. As they marched through cold puddles for the next few miles, Frankl could think of nothing but his wife. He imagined her so vividly that her presence became clearer to him than the rising sun. He could see her smile and her encouraging look; he could even hear her responding to his questions.
His conclusion? “In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honourable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.” This, he felt, was the “greatest secret” that human wisdom has to impart: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Focusing on Values-Consistent Actions Rather than Goals
By focusing on acting consistently with his own freely-chosen values Frankl also managed to avoid what he regarded as a tragic error made by many of his fellow prisoners: pinning their hopes to goals over which they had no control.
A whole group of prisoners, for instance, became convinced they would be liberated by Christmas 1944. When they were not, the death rate in the camp spiked higher than ever before. Nevertheless, after Frankl’s senior block warden, a famous composer, had a vivid dream that they would all be liberated by March 30, 1945 his hopes began to soar. A day after the expected liberation did not occur, he died.
In contrast, Frankl focused on what he could control: reframing his terrible predicament as a test or challenge of his ability to act in harmony with his own deeply-held values.
One of the main reasons Man’s Search for Meaning has sold over 16 million copies worldwide is because it reminds us that even when we’re in terrifying situations over which we have no control, one powerful reframe always remains available to us: the freedom to view our situation as a test of our characters and as a challenge of our ability to do what matters, no matter what.