Thursday, March 5, 2015


In Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl writes that the one thing we can control, no matter the circumstances, is our attitude.  He relates his experience in a Nazi concentration camp of having everything dear to him taken away and manipulated, yet he retained the freedom to choose his own attitude even in a horrible situation.

This is true, but also difficult.  I find that some mornings I jump out of bed in great spirits, looking forward to the day.  Other times, I awaken, dreading what is in store for me.  What’s the difference?  My attitude.  But why do I have distinctly opposite attitudes?  The same event can occur, and one time I’m positive, and the next I’m negative.

The telephone rings.  One time I say to myself, “Oh, groan.  I don’t want to be interrupted.  There’s someone who will make a demand on my time.”  Or sometimes, I think, “Ah, there’s an opportunity.  I wonder who it is?”

What’s the difference?  Again, my attitude.

Controlling your attitude compares to one of the tenets of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, Right View.  Having the correct outlook or view impacts your whole being.

In exploring this further, I’ve discovered three things that affect my attitude.  First, external circumstances.  Frankl may have learned to deal with this, but it remains a significant factor.  My attitude tends to be more positive when I’ve got fun things ahead of me to do versus onerous tasks. Sure, I may be able to control my attitude, but it requires more effort when surrounded by a negative situation.

Second, chemistry.  As much as I think I can control my attitude, sometimes I feel high and other times I feel low.  Things going on inside my body can have an effect.  Medication can impact both pain and attitude.  Certainly when given anesthetic, we become relaxed, forget to worry about the upcoming operation and then fall asleep.  Chemistry.  An adrenaline rush or body sugar levels can also influence our attitude.

Third is the part we control.  I do agree with Frankl that in the majority of circumstances, we are in charge of our attitude.  Putting aside body chemistry, we can learn to deal with external circumstances, and then it comes down to what we chose.  Will I chose to be grumpy and pout or suck it up, take a deep breath and get on with my life?

The Stockdale Paradox has been described as the dilemma a prisoner of war faced of being completely realistic about the gravity of his circumstances while not giving up hope.  This applies equally in everyday life: we must be realistic about our situation but then do everything possible to improve it.  This means to act from a base of reality, not illusion.  If you’re being held prisoner, you’re in a dire situation.  Admit it.  Don’t pretend you’re not.  But don’t give up.  Do everything possible to survive and regain your freedom.

This means accepting the moment, but taking the steps to make things better.

The bottom line:  accept and improve.

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