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Life’s Meaning According to the Ones Who Have Needed It the Most

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

– Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

– Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

The Bangkok sunset from my balcony
Life’s all about how you frame it

It’s a powerful message these two men have come to deliver: we have and always will have the freedom to choose our reactions to our environment, no matter how helpless we may be otherwise. Both Roberts and Frankl came to this conclusion in moments of complete helplessness, which makes sense: our tendency to cling to our “last of human freedoms” is an evolutionary adaptation of the brain to preserve itself in the toughest of times.

I’ve been toting this philosophy around ever since the first time I read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in my senior year of high school, but now that I’ve confronted the same idea in a similar context while reading Shantaram, I’ve been thinking:

How can we channel this “last of human freedoms” – a lesson that seems so clear in helpless, hopeless, terrifying and torturous times – in our everyday lives? How can we use the knowledge of the power we possess over our own minds as a tool to empower us not just in extreme situations of helplessness but in our daily lives?


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