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Never let a good crisis go to waste: Viktor Frankl’s lessons

By Oseas Ramírez
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Viktor Frankl quote “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.”

A couple of years ago, I joined a team facilitating an executive development session at a US company. During that meeting, a defense contractor executive shared an anecdote of a big crisis they had faced, and he said “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. That phrase stuck with me and during the last week I’ve been thinking about the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus crisis. The crisis is here, government officials, scientists, healthcare workers and many others are actively working to slow it down. The rest of us have been impacted in more than one way. There is now no scenario in which what is happening is not a crisis. Hence I have been pondering, how do we prevent this crisis from going to waste? In other words, what can we do to at least get some form of benefit to go with the hardships that are here, and that will inevitably come in the upcoming weeks and months. The answers to such a question are wide ranging – from a macro level of learning how to better prepare for this type of events in the future, all the way down to a very intimate level, like how do we cope in these critical times. I hope that this article can spark actionable ideas of how to get something of value in the midst of the inevitable.

I would like to share something that is more philosophical in nature. For some this might mean it’s only theoretical (and thus with little to no value in real life), but in reality it’s the cornerstone, or least a foundational piece, to equip ourselves to respond to this crisis. Let me start with an anecdote.

 

 

When I was 17 years old I was going through a rough patch of my life. A teacher at the time recommended that I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”. I found it very valuable at the time, yet I was (and still am) far from fully comprehending the depths of the lessons there. Fast forward to 2020 and we are in the middle of a global pandemic. As bad as things are as of April 1st, we are still in a moment in which we find people at very different places of understanding the situation. There’s a range that goes from completely ignoring the gravity of the situation (i.e. spring breakers in the US, or visitors enjoying the cherry trees blossom in Japan) to losing a loved one – and in some cases not even being able to give them a proper funeral, and everything in between. It does seem to me that as days progress more and more people are moving in this range towards the realization that we are in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe. As more and more cities enforce lockdowns to varying degrees (i.e. self-shelter or even curfews enforced by police or military personnel), we start seeing the control measures take their toll on society: work places closed, people losing jobs, kids home from school, overwhelmed healthcare workers risking their lives without enough supplies, you name it – and it is bad.

In the midst of this chaos, I have found it helpful to remember one of Viktor Frankl’s most famous quotes: “The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This might be easy to dismiss if it was coming from a Psychiatrist sitting in a posh office somewhere, just coming up with a nice phrase. However, in case you are not familiar with his story, Frankl had this and many other insights as a result of his observations when interned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His accounts of the experiences in this space are harrowing to say the least – yet suffice it to say that they are of a much graver nature than what the vast majority of us are experiencing during this crisis. So, wherever we find ourselves in the stress-spectrum, whether it’s in one end of being oblivious to it (or being in denial), or in the end of downright grief as tragedy has already struck us, we all keep the last of our human freedoms – choosing our attitude in our given set of circumstances. Such a deceivingly simple phrase merits being looked at in more depth – much more than what I would dare to attempt to cover. However, there are a couple of ideas I would like to put forward to take one step ahead in looking at the choice we can make with this last of our human freedoms:

-This is an internal choice, in which we are choosing how we respond to our circumstances. It allows us to at least being able to choose that attitude when we are in a situation in which we can’t choose most (or any) of our circumstances – whether you are locked up working from home during the epidemic, feeling stressed, taking your last breaths on a respirator – or in a concentration camp in WWII.

-This choice has to be renewed, as Frankl says, every day, every hour. Talking with colleagues, friends and family something I consistently hear is “I can’t believe it’s been only x weeks, it feels like months”. The toll of going about every day with the hardships we are facing is not a minor thing. Thus, we have to renew our choice every day, every hour: what is my attitude in light of these circumstances going to be? And to emphasize the point, circumstances do matter, they have a tremendous impact in us, but they do not inevitably condemn us to being and feeling in a certain way. According to Frankl’s work, even in the concentration camps, in which everyone was equally subjected to some of the worst horrors we’ve seen in history, there were differences in the attitude choices that some made. As Frankl says,  “It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.” 

Paying attention to this last of our human freedoms might seem inconsequential when compared to the scale of questions leaders, scientists and many others are working on answering: can we find a cure? If so, can we do it before the scale of this pandemic increases? Before the economy collapses? For the rest of us, most of these decisions are out of our reach. Our questions might be how do I pay rent? How do I keep food on the table and a roof on our heads? How do I manage the stress of …? In either case, having the weight of the world on our shoulders, or the weight of our families, or just of our own emotions, let’s focus on what we can control, or at least get a grip on: our attitude is a great place to start. If we all take care of this, we will at least collectively be in a much better mental and emotional space to make better choices, execute them and live with the consequences to come for the weeks and months ahead.

 

 

 

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