On the evening of September 24, 1942, Dr. Viktor Frankl kissed his wife on the forehead as they both prepared to go to bed. It was a tender, familiar gesture—one that had been repeated hundreds of times during their marriage. Like many of us, he drifted to sleep while running through his mental to-do list for the next day. Little did he know, his life would be irreversibly changed within a few short hours. In the wee hours of the morning of September 25, 1942, the Nazi army rushed into his home and forced him and his family to leave in nothing but their pajamas in the brutal cold of winter.
Dr. Frankl was immediately separated from his family. During the first few weeks of his imprisonment he was starved, beaten, and forced to walk for miles from one concentration camp to another, completely naked. To help him never forget how close he was to death, the Nazi guards gave him the task of removing dead bodies from the camp or shoveling the charred remains and ashes out of the gas chambers. His three years in concentration camps were marked by daily uncertainty whether he would live to the next morning.
His mind drifted back to the warmth of his bed and the beauty of his wife and children in an effort to build a sense of sanity in the midst of indescribable carnage and chaos. He had no idea that everyone he loved, his parents, brother, children, and wife were all dead; some from the inhumane conditions of their concentration camps and others from the flame of gas ovens.
One day, while sitting alone and naked on the cement floor of his small cell, Dr. Frankl became aware of what he later called “the last of human freedoms.” His Nazi captors could control his body, kill his friends and family, and make him do the most unthinkable acts for their pure entertainment, but Frankl discovered that in the midst of it all he still retained the power to choose how to be affected by it.
In reflecting on his time in Nazi captivity, Dr. Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The power to choose how we respond is a power that can never be taken; it can only be yielded
Unimaginable. The thought of what Dr. Frankl endured is simply unimaginable. He lost everything. Every loved one. Every possession. Every sense of control or power over his life and body. Yet, he discovered in the midst of deep evil and cruelty that everything could be taken from him except his power to choose how he let it affect him. The strength of character it takes to arrive at such an awareness is not only powerful, but it is deeply instructive for us all.
Attempting to answer the question “why did this happen to me” requires taking a set of facts, then filtering them through layers of personal interpretation. My personal struggle toward freedom from my past has been so difficult because the way we answer our “why” determines how we see our role in the “what.” The Bible tells us “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but you can’t put this principle into practice until you move from a place of powerlessness to a position of power. The hard truth is that “why” something happened doesn’t change “what” happened. And “what” happened only has the power you give it to control you. Like Dr. Frankl, our challenge is to develop the ability to look at what happened to us and choose how we respond to it going forward.
Phillippians 4:6 is one of my favorite scriptures and says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Many people skip over what I believe to be the most important, life-giving part of this scripture; the part that teaches us how to activate the power we need to combat anxiety, fear and anger. Gratitude. This scripture tells us to not be anxious, but instead, to pray and seek God for what we need… with thanksgiving. As I grew into adulthood, my life began to change and the toxic hold my past had on me began to weaken when I started going to God in prayer and thanking Him for the good in my life in spite of my pain. When I became intentionally and acutely aware of the goodness of God in my life, the “whys” of my past started to become less and less relevant to me. Gratefulness shifts our focus from the ashes of our past to the beauty of our present.
Take out a paper and pen, or open your notes app on your phone, and write out everything you are grateful for in your life; the big and seemingly small. Use that list as a visual reminder every morning that the goodness of God is operating in your life.
Lord, I have so much to be grateful for despite the past disappointments and pain I've experienced. Thank you for giving me beauty in my life and helping me to focus on what I have, not what I lack. Amen.