The Freedom to Choose How We See Life

Janet Hourihan Brooks is an amazing woman. She is the mother of one of my son’s best friends. She has suffered through aggressive metastatic pancreatic cancer for the past six years. Yet she is one of the most positive people I know, staying quite active in life through her kids’ sports, her ongoing coaching of town teams, through running 10k and other races, and staying so engaged in life that it’s hard to think of her as suffering. Yet, it surely isn’t easy for her. She’s in constant excruciating pain. Her medical prognosis isn’t positive as the cancer continues to spread. Despite any negative prognosis, she chooses to face life with hope. She reminds me of others in our church family who have struggled with cancer yet have remained so positive, people like Lorna and Engert and George and Stacy.

This week, Janet posted on facebook an update of her condition. Having just celebrated her birthday, she wrote: “I’m 58 years young and need a theme for this year.” She went on to talk about hearing a story about Viktor Frankl 30 years ago, and never forgot the message she got. A motivational speaker talked about what Frankl and his life in a Nazi concentration camp:

“Frankl was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp where he endured, among other things, weekly medical "experiments." You might remember hearing about Nazi doctors did things like injecting blue dye into the brown eyes of a person to see if you could change their eye color. You can't but it can blind a person which then earned the poor victim a trip to the gas chambers since they were now disabled. In Victor’s case he was a test "dummy" to see how much electric shock a body could handle before it would go into cardiac arrest. Before the war, Frankl was a 30 something-ish psychologist and professor at the university of Vienna. He came from a highly educated, privileged Jewish family. One day Frankl returned to the barracks after a miserable session and started thinking about what had become of his life. This once happy, vibrant man who loved teaching young people and helping his patients with their problems in his private practice was gone. He had become a shell of himself and didn't like it.

He started thinking about how the Nazis had taken away almost all of his freedom. Yet, he realized that there was one freedom his Nazi captors could not take away - and that was his ability to choose his response to his circumstances. He could continue to wallow in self-pity and eventually die or he could choose a different response. As he thought more about his new freedom, he immediately felt better and started to exercise his freedom. He began reaching out to others who struggled with their situation and encouraged them to use their freedom and choose to respond without hatred and self-pity He became a beacon of hope to those around him and he gained strength as he realizes he was returning to his old self. As he endured torture treatments, he would use his imagination to project himself far away and pretend he was back at the university lecturing his students about how much the human body can endure. That helped him get through the torture. Eventually WWII ended and allies liberated their camp. Frankl returned to Austria to out his life back together. He used the lessons learned in the camp as his guide with his patients. You could sum up his philosophy as this: Often we cannot determine what happens to us. Yet we can choose how we respond to all the unexpected and unfortunate situations that confront us.”

Think about this: Often we cannot determine what happens to us. Yet we can choose how we respond to all the unexpected and unfortunate situations that confront us.”

This became the thesis of his classic book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and concurs with a fundamental principle that we Christians believe in with whatever we may face in life. I often repeat the words of the blessed Bishop Gerasimos Papadopoulos, who said, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” We live this mystery by choosing to live with hope, by choosing to do good instead of giving in to evil, by choosing to believe in a Sovereign God who loves us and not allowing the unexpected suffering of this world determine our worldview.

Here is a central part of the Good News Jesus proclaimed. In today’s Gospel story, we hear how “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.” Christ went around teaching and proclaiming a message of comfort in the midst of terrible suffering, a message of hope and light in the midst of despair and darkness, a message of love that will always be greater than the worst hate, a message of ultimate meaning in the midst of a world that seemed so confusing.

Each one of us have a choice on how we will live. No unexpected factor in life needs to determine how we face life – not any terrifying illness like cancer, no political craziness like we see in our country, no terrible tragedy that may hit us unexpectedly, and not even the greatest evil like a concentration camp. We can’t control all that happens to us in life, but we can choose how to respond to the deep mysteries of life with faith. Will we give in to despair, or choose to live with hope? Will we allow anger to control us, or choose to forgive and reconcile and maintain peace? Will we be overwhelmed by the problems of life or choose to live each day as a God-given mystery, believing and knowing that He is ultimately in control.

As Saint Paisios says, “What I see around me would drive me insane, if I did not know that no matter what happens, God will have the last word.”

This is what Saint Paul meant when he said, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) This doesn’t mean that everything will work out the way we want it to work out. Good in the eyes of God may not always seem good, in the moment, to us. Yet, we must remember and believe that nothing happens outside of God’s control. Life is a deep mystery that we may not understand. Some things happen in life that we simply can’t comprehend. Yet we have a choice, as Viktor Frankl highlighted, and we can choose to believe that God is Good, that He is ultimately Sovereign over whatever happens to us in life, and that no matter how challenging and difficult and even incomprehensible life may seem, everything is still inside the Will of God.

Often we cannot determine what happens to us. Yet we can choose how we respond to all the unexpected and unfortunate situations that confront us.”

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