By ROSHAN THIRAN
Topping Bill Gates’ summer reading list, ‘The Choice‘ by Dr Edith Eva Eger is a timely and thought-provoking reminder that, no matter the challenges we face in life, we can always choose how we respond.
The extreme challenges faced by Dr Eger are beyond anything the majority of people today could imagine. At the age of 16, Edith – a talented dancer with ambition and drive – got sent to the most notorious Nazi concentration camp along with her parents and one of her sisters. The year was 1944. The Second World War would end one year later, but the nightmare had just started for Edith and her family.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, the ‘passengers’ of the cramped train carriages stumbled onto the camp, exhausted and aching after the treacherous journey. At the entrance to Auschwitz, an iron sign above the gates reads, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – work sets you free. As Edith’s father hears music playing, he tells his daughter that this can’t be such a bad place, and that all they need do is ‘work for a while’ until the end of the war.
The day of their arrival will be the last time Edith and her sister see their parents. As they inch toward one of the selection lines, the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele points Edith’s mother left (to the gas chambers) while she and her sister were sent right to the barracks to endure slave labour.
In total, 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz. Over one million of those people were murdered.
On the day of their capture, Edith’s mother told her that:
“We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but no one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.”
Throughout her time at the hellish concentration camp, and during the barbaric death marches afterwards, Edith lived by her mother’s advice as a means of survival. No matter what she faced, no matter how tough the struggle, she would always choose her response, striving to move forward, and never turn away from the reality that needed to be faced.
After the war, Edith and her husband moved to America where she would become a respected clinical psychologist intent on empowering people to recognise their capacity for choice. Her mentor, Viktor E. Frankl – the author of Man’s Search for Meaning – also lived through the horrifying reality at Auschwitz. He later observed that:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
In The Choice, Dr Eger reminds us that we all face tough challenges in life and that nobody’s personal suffering is greater or less than another’s. Our mistake is to contrast and compare, divide and judge. And yet, that’s exactly the mindset that leads us all to lose out. As she says, to survive and thrive takes collaboration, not competition.
Her book is a powerful story that shows, no matter the struggles we face, there are always choices in how we respond and, in choosing our response, we open ourselves up to unlikely possibilities and new opportunities, even from the most dire circumstances. Here are four key takeaways from Dr Eger’s compelling and empowering book:
1. “Our painful experiences aren’t a liability—they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.”
When we face painful experiences, we can choose to be overwhelmed and give up. On the other hand, we can dig deep and find the inner strength we have to persevere and overcome the challenge. We might not always succeed, but we can always learn, grow, and find a new way forward. That’s what resilience is all about.
2. “To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.”
We all have doubts about our worth and capacity to succeed. Sometimes, our fears and anxiety can lead us to be aggressive towards ourselves and toward others. People who write angry or judgemental comments toward others on social media, for example, are not in a good place.
Similarly, being passive reflects a mindset that has resigned itself to whatever might happen. By being assertive, we respectfully embrace our values and stand up for our beliefs and purpose without the need to put others down to make ourselves feel better. We lift ourselves up and, at the same time, offer a hand to anyone who needs it.
3. “It’s the first time I see that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.”
No matter how much we try, we can’t wish for a better past. When we dwell on how we suffered before or how things used to be, we take our energy from the present – the only time we have, to make a difference.
As Dr Eger mentions in her book, one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself is to change the question, “Why me?” to “What now?”
Read: How to Reinvent the Future and Stop Reliving the Past
4. ‘”…by the time I would finish school I’ll be fifty.” She smiled. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow”’
Prior to her doctoral research, Dr Eger was conscious of the fact that the war had put her life on hold for several years. She found herself middle-aged and contemplating further study that would require another few years of investment. And yet, God willing, we’re all going to have our years to live anyway.
So why not invest them on doing something worthwhile, something of value that can make a difference to others? The opportunity to learn, grow, develop and give to others transcends any of our perceived limitations. If we have the drive, the will and the determination to do what matters to us, we always have the choice to step up to the plate and get it done.