Monday, June 1, 2009

The One Human Freedom

I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.
-E.B. White, American author

The world is divided into people who believe they can change the world and people who don't. The meanings of "world" and "change" are relative. A 1-year-old smiles sweetly at her daddy pointing at the gummy bear jar on top of the fridge trying to effect change with charm. A teacher sees great potential in a wayward student and tells the parents hoping to make a difference with authority. A chemist works in the lab four hours past quitting time knowing her work could be the difference in eradicating swine flu.
The power to change the world is wrought with peril. Mistakes will be made, people will disappoint or be disappointed and too many days may end with exhaustion and defeat. But such is life. The power to change life is the stuff of hope. Without hope, there is depression.
In 1964, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term "learned helplessness" to describe a loss of will he observed in lab dogs. The dogs were inadvertently taught that their actions had no correlations to outcomes. These dogs shrank physically and mentally. They became sluggish and the eagerness dogs are known for left. But 1/3 of the dogs kept trying to effect change; they did not learn this helplessness. These are the dogs Seligman continued to study.
Eventually Seligman studied similar characteristics in humans and found that some people refuse to become helpless in even the most adverse life circumstances. These positive people believe negative circumstances are temporary and that they have some control, even if the only control they really have is that of thoughts.
Viktor Frankl, Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning says

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

What Frankl labels "last of the human freedoms" is also the first and possibly the only. In the end, we are either directors or prisoners of our thoughts and what we choose to think, makes all the difference in the world.

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