My dear one, you must learn to see with eyes of a holocaust survivor. It pains me to lead you in this direction. This way lies a kind of stripping away of everything – a kind of taking away everything we thought made us human to see what is left. There are no short cuts on this journey. You cannot skip to the end and hope to absorb this lesson deep into your being. You must travel the path and find what opens up. The sphinx knows there is a great burning away that must precede any kind of rising out of the ashes.
I want you to read or listen to Part I of the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl. Victor was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist when, at the age of 39, he and his wife (age 23) were transported to Auschwitz concentration camp. Victor survives his three years of imprisonment in the concentration camps, ending when Germany lost the war. In liberation he learns that none of his family survived, including his beloved wife. Victor Frankl wrote the book to try to illustrate what life was like for the average person in the concentration camp. His exploration is guided by a driving question: when everything else is stripped away, what is left? Put differently, why did some survivors retain some human dignity and others did not?
It may seem to you that exploring the concentration camps is not relevant to learning the art of dancing with elephants. But if dancing with elephants is about learning to embrace that we which we fear most, then concentration camps may be an appropriate place to explore. Read the book and listen for what habits of the heart and mind help some people survive concentration camps. While there are many obvious differences between those who survive concentrations and those with chronic illness, even Victor Frankl himself suggests there are also important similarities. I will not review those here but this is another theme you might listen for as you read the book. Frankl says “It is very difficult for an outsider to grasp how very little value was placed on human life in the camp.” Here in the place where human life was constantly degraded and exterminated – here we will look for insights on the reverence for life.
I’ve identified 6 habits I’ve learned from Victor Frankl which I think can be helpful to elephant dancers like yourself.
In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
And there was always choice to make. Every day, every hour offers the opportunity to make a decision – a decision of whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom. Which determined if you would become the play thing of circumstance. Renouncing dignity to be molded into the form of a typical inmate.
There is much that I love about this. We suffer unavoidably because of circumstance and environment but still have the freedom to choose how we live our lives. We can still choose responsible action. Whether we live like saints or swine does not depend on what kind of disease we have but rather how we decide to live in the present. We live like swine when we submit to those powers that rob us our very self. Yet our real freedom is to choose to live like saints despite our circumstances. Thich Nhat Hanh made this same observation while teach mindfulness to prisoners. He said that there are people outside of prison who walk everyday like they are in prison. Similarly, he suggested, a person could practice walking like a free person, even in prison. We do not need to be slaves to our diseases – whether hereditary or environmental. We still have the freedom at each moment to choose to dance with elephants.
Let me give you an example. I was preparing myself to write this piece by going for a walk with my dog, Kobi while listening to the audiobook of A Man’s Search for Meaning. Victor was talking about how sometimes those who feel like their future was stolen from them, simply give up. But he was suggesting we have other options. Namely, the freedom to choose responsible action. So I decided to put it into practice. I wondered what it would take to increase someone else’s joy today before I completed my walk. So I amended my walking route to go past a supportive living residence for people with physical and cognitive disabilities or struggle with mental health illnesses. I avoided passing this place as a child as I tended to be afraid of “those people.” When Kobi was a puppy I started walking by with him. For many, a puppy is joy on a leash. I knew I could share this with my neighbours. More recently I had fallen out of this habit, so, I tried to exercise my freedom to choose responsible action. I returned with Kobi to see if we could share some joy. As I approached, a man who has a great connection with Kobi was on the sidewalk. This was good news. I like running into this guy. As I approached I noticed that from a distance he looked like a wild man – dirty clothes, long hair with large beard, quite unkempt. As we got closer I could see that even his hands were full of dirt and he had a vacant stare. I realize that I am not actually describing him, but my perceptions about him. As we got close, he recognized Kobi and then me. “Can I pet him?” he asked, in his usual way. “Always.” I responded. Kobi sat at his feet and leaned in for the love. The man’s face transformed into light, as did mine, and Kobi’s. “Thank you” said the man. “Anytime,” I responded. And we went on our way.
Now Victor Frankl says as soon as responsible action is chosen and taken in the present moment it becomes the permeant past. The present and the future are uncertain but the past is not. That moment of joy will always be in our past where cannot be taken way. My 5-minute experiment created joy and a shared past of goodness. Yes, it was just a kernel. No, it did not change our circumstances. But it did change our attitude toward them. It did allow me to choose my own way to face that moment of living in a good way. Further, it built up courage in me.
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