Last week was Passover, the Jewish holiday to celebrate freedom. Here are some thoughts that I shared at the family Seder:
I thought about the late Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. He said the following about his release from prison:
I thought about the late Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and author, who said the following about surviving in Auschwitz:
Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl could not have experienced more egregious violations of their freedoms, yet both communicated their subjective experiences of transcendence. Their experiences both had to do with how they related to their external circumstances. This is one of the main reasons that they were able to survive such unimaginable horrors.
I thought about patients of mine that were victims of childhood sexual abuse.
I thought about the families in the shanty towns of Peru, where my wife, Deb, is from, that live in extreme poverty without running water and electricity.
I thought about the Syrian civilians that were attacked with chemical weapons.
I thought about the more than 3 million girls that, according to the WHO, are at risk of genital mutilation every year.
I have my own version of living with a challenge to my freedom, having a disability. I cannot compare that with any of the aforementioned situations, but I am not trying to compare.
Having a disability means that I am not free to walk with ease, to climb stairs, run, play guitar and tennis. I used to do all of these things with ease. Over time, my body forced me to make adaptations and/or simply to stop doing things that I would not have chosen to stop doing.
In my post last week about depression, I said that one of the most profound things that I have learned to date is that my wellbeing and happiness are not inversely proportional to my physical state. This is because my relationship to my situation has changed over time, i.e. my thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs.
This does not mean that I do not suffer and have really bad days, but it speaks to a similar phenomenon that I believe allowed Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl to overcome and survive their external circumstances.
I am not at all insinuating that external circumstances are irrelevant and that all you have to do is change your relationship to your circumstances. I believe that it is our job as human beings to fight against circumstances that limit people’s freedoms like my cousin’s wife, Sonya, is doing with FreeFrom, whose mission is to: “make safety affordable for all survivors of domestic violence so that they can build lives free from violence for themselves and their children”.
Deb’s great grandmother, grandmother and great uncle survived almost four years in a Nazi concentration camp. Her great grandfather collapsed and died in front of their eyes while they were being marched to the camps, and her great grandmother told Deb’s grandmother and great uncle that: “Life goes on. We must stand up and continue walking”. They didn’t even know at that point where they were going.
Almost ten years ago, Deb, our son, Eric, and I were at Deb's late great uncle’s home in Florida. He showed me a picture of his family that had been miraculously found after the war. He sent me his video interview from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Project and asked me if I thought it was worth him talking about this. The following is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to him after watching the video:
“I cannot believe that after 50 years you can still remember the exact dates and days of the week. I felt like I was there with you. I wanted to try to enter the experience with you because it is the minimum that I can do. That doesn’t mean that I can truly enter the experience or understand what it was like for you to lose your childhood at 12 years old (the same age my son is now). I cannot. I can only try to imagine, appreciate and not forget. That is what you said you wanted more than anything else, for your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to not forget what you have experienced. I promise you that I will not forget.”
We can all do our own work as individuals to change the ways that we relate to our own circumstances, which is what I believe to be the ultimate goal with respect to our individual mental health.
But the stories of Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, Sonya’s women, Deb's grandmother and her Uncle Boris and everyone that is living in the face of threats to their freedom provide us with a clear and present reminder that we are not truly free if we ignore what is happening around us.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, helping couples with their relationships since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist with a web-based private practice and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global. David lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids and toy poodle.