Choice seems to be the word and concept that has been in my face and on my mind a lot these days. It is a concept that on one level seems very positive but is it always positive? We like to be able to choose. To choose what we wear, what we eat, what we do, where we go, who we go with etc. We make these choices for the most part without really paying attention to the fact that we have the chance to make these decisions.
The reading and thinking that I have been doing about the concentration camps in World War II inspired by my recent visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museums in Poland has also motivated my thinking about choice. My perception about choice has been impacted by this opening in awareness. It makes me think about the fact that to have choice is a luxury for many people and in many situations. Specifically during that war and any war for that matter individual choice is severely hampered and in some cases becomes non-existent. Definitely in the concentration camps choice was severely limited in the areas of life that we take for granted. Things like what we wear, what and when we eat, how and when we sleep, who we sleep with, how we take care of personal hygiene and how we spend our time. These choices were taken away. Recognition and acknowledgement of this lack of choice makes me appreciate the choices that I do have and not take them for granted. It also makes me look beyond these types of everyday-living choices and look at how other areas of choices were impacted in places like the concentration camps and further how the choices made by the individuals in these camps can serve as life lessons for all of us in this day and age.
Here I speak about the choices that every individual in the camps made about how they would respond to the indignities put upon them. How does one choose a reaction to being put in an impossible and painful situation like the concentration camps? The information and accounts of experiences from the life in these camps comes to us from people who survived the camps. One can speculate that the survivors were able to make choices about how to respond to their situation and these choices in turn had an impact on their survival. The people who did not survive would have been a mixed group. One group would be those who had no choice at all and were sent directly to their death when they arrived at the camps. One could speculate that another group would be those who were kept alive when they arrived at the camps and perhaps either were unable to make choices about how to respond or those who responded by choosing not to survive. This latter group is difficult to contemplate, as it is difficult to even suggest that it would be easy to choose to survive versus choose not to survive. I do not believe that it was that simple at all but implied in the works of those who did survive is that an element of choice existed for some individuals who did not survive. Primo Levi speaks about one of the lessons that he learned early on in his time in the Auschwitz that he asserts had an effect on his ability to survive. He speaks about choices about maintaining simple routines such as continuing to wash even though it was really quite a farce with no clean water, no soap, no clean clothes, but the choice was in the action to continue the routine to save some element of being a respectful human and not be reduced to an animal as was the hope of the captors. Hanging onto
this slim thread of respect allowed these individuals to maintain the upper hand, if there ever was one. It also kept them attached to what they were before they entered the unreal and unbelievably cruel environment of the camps. The individuals who chose to not continue the routine began a decline of the body and the spirit that surely had an impact on their ability to continue to survive.
So were the survivors who have shared their experiences different from those who did not? From my limited knowledge of the existing accounts there does seem to be a pattern. People who have written about life in the camps seem to also talk about the choices that they made either consciously or unconsciously at the time. These were choices to not allow the physical and psychological hardships they suffered to completely overwhelm them but instead choosing to hang onto their sense of being a person, worthy of living and sustaining a sense of dignity. Like the decision to continue to wash these choices helped these individuals to keep some sense of hope, hang onto being human and keep their heads above water so to speak.
More significantly, choices about a philosophy for life and living took the survivors to a higher level of existence that many humans never encounter. We learn from Viktor Frankl that if we are no longer able to change our circumstances we can change our response to the circumstance. I have used this quote in eulogies and in reports recommending system change to highlight our opportunity to choose our response and to be able to move beyond what might appear as a barrier or even “just the way things are”. The statement suggests that we may not be able to prevent certain things from happening to us but that we can decide or choose whether we react negatively or positively or neutrally to whatever the event or situation.
This is where the value of choice and whether it is seen as positive or negative starts to blur depending on many factors. It is easy to state and feel that choice in everyday decisions is something that all of us value and want to hang onto but when it comes to choice about our philosophy about life and how we respond to life, suffering and all, is not so straightforward. This is the stuff of Nietzsche’s existentialism as I remember it. With choice comes responsibility and in this case responsibility for our state of being. We may not be happy with our present state of affairs, where we live or where we work, but we do have the choice to take actions to move towards another state of affairs or to remain where we are, unhappy and all. Having made the choice we live with the outcome. Now there are situations that we cannot influence readily but still we can make a choice about how we feel about the situation and what we do in the meantime. We can change our response to the circumstance. This is difficult to accept at times. Sometimes I wish that I did not have the choice or maybe that I was unaware that I did have the choice. It seems like it may be easier to wallow in self-pity or despair or avoid taking action rather than to take responsibility and begin the shift towards a more acceptable position or at least a more positive response.
Resistance to the notion that we have a choice about many areas of life is rampant in today’s society where blaming others is standard practice for political, government and celebrity figures. Blamers do have a point; most situations we find ourselves in involve the actions of at least one other individual that they can point the finger at. However Frankl, Levi and Nietzsche would maintain that we still have a choice in how we respond and that simply blaming others is not one of the choices.
So we come full circle back to how we really feel about choice. Simply put and within acknowledgement of generalization, we as members of today’s society choose to “have our cake and eat it too” even though this is not possible. We do need to make a choice, a choice whether to choose to take responsibility for our lives and for our decisions. More importantly we can choose to learn from individuals such the survivors of Auschwitz and recognize the value in choosing to respond to whatever life throws us in a way that sustains life rather than moves us away from life. And in making these choices we become more cognizant of how our choices affect others and support them to also make choices that help us as a society and a world to not only survive but to live a good quality of life. With awareness of our ability to choose we can expand our influence on the future of our world and not let the tough choices of people before us be in vain.