A little while back I was asked why I see humans as privileged, compared, say, with animals or insects. The context was a debate on whether we have the power to change our circumstances, or whether some of us our powerless to change a bad situation. As a good friend of mine put it – “I looked at the things I was doing that I liked doing, and the things that I was doing that I didn’t like doing. and adjusted my life accordingly”. But can we all live like that? Do we get the choice?
So, the reason I see human beings as privileged – particularly in the context of this dialogue – is that we get to choose the meaning that we associate with events. The meaning we attach to events is what matters – not the events themselves.
A story I love is of a Cambodian imprisoned and tortured during the Pol Pot regime, who said “One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise – so, you see, I was completely free.”How did he figure that one? “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.” And he did – during a commotion that night he ran for the fence, since he had nothing to lose.. and ran to freedom.
Viktor Frankl spent time in the most atrocious of conditions in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. In amongst the death, the despair, the filth and the hopelessness, he wrote “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.” He went on to write “Man’s Search for Meaning” – a book which, wonderfully, was earlier published under the German title “Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen” or “Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life”.
That’s a huge shift of meaning from hopeless to hopeful. I have had to do it on many many occasions in my life – to shift myself from being a victim of circumstances (or, to be honest, the results of my own stupidity!) to having options. And I think we always do have options, particularly on how we choose to react to what’s around us. We may say we’re stuck – we may believe we’re stuck – it may even seem to those around us that we’re stuck – and yet I think we really do have the ability to decide to behave differently – whether that’s in our attitude, or in our behaviour.
As Granny Weatherwax observed in Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld series “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story – change the world.”
We can use story and meaning to create our world the way we want it – one way to build a concrete path to your dreams is to write a movie script of your perfect day, building in all the detail, the sounds, the sights, the aromas, the sensations, the feelings. creating so much more of a powerful energy than simply “I want my own successful business” or “I want to get married”. What will that really feel like.?
We can use story and meaning to change the way we look at a situation – something which is disempowering in one story can suddenly become incredibly powerful in another. How many times do we have to hear the story of the cabin boy who became captain, of the pageboy who became king, of the scullerymaid who marries the prince, to know that what people decry as ‘fairy stories’ actually contain some of the most enduring truths about our world and the way it works.
And we can use story and meaning to change our lives. I have a story which I have never shared with anyone that describes my life so far, and the way I see it unfolding in the future, in empowering, powerful metaphors and images, full of richness and archetypal heroes. I have chosen to attach new meaning to the events of the past and to my current reality, that allows me to create a future full of possibility and energy. The beauty of doing this is that it hasn’t tied my story down to a specific way that it must unfold, simply because it’s full of metaphor rather than specifics.
We can continue to replay the old story of despair “well, I’m bankrupt so that means I haven’t got the financial freedom to create the life I want or do the things I want” or we can change it to a story of hope “I’m bankrupt, and that frees me up to have the time to choose what I want to do, and the opportunity to reshape my life just the way I want it”.
We have the power to change the meaning of the events that shape our world. And that means we change how we experience our world. Because even if nothing changes, everything can change. In a heartbeat.
Find out more at www.timhodgson.org