“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.” ~Viktor E. Frankl
It’s massively important how we define our world and the experiences we have in it. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to learn that early in my life.
When I was twelve, my stepfather was a homicidal-leaning, violent alcoholic. I believe my mother must have suffered a Stockholm Syndrome kind of relationship with him. They were together for thirteen years even though they separated several times.
He tried to kill us all on more than one occasion. Car … double-barreled shotgun … with his bare hands.
Bill died of suicide some years after their divorce. “I’ll show you!” he said to his wife just before he jumped out in front of a speeding car on the highway. I felt sorry for the woman driving the car.
I learned a specific lesson about defining an experience one fall day. We lived in Florida. It was drizzling rain on this particular Sunday. We were traveling from where we lived near the Atlantic coast in Cocoa, to visit Bill’s mother in Orlando.
Bill had been drinking as he usually did on weekends. And, of course, when he drank, he often got belligerent and argumentative.
We had to drive through a long stretch of swampy land, then we came out on open ranch land where Brahman cattle grazed.
Bill and Mother argued. The four of us children sat quietly, afraid to move or say anything with the tension building in the car. Things could get ugly if he turned his attention to one of us.
All of a sudden, the car swerved. It started to spin sideways in one direction, then all the way around in the opposite direction. It spun completely around three times, continuing down the highway, before it finally came to a stop.
But when it stopped, we could feel the car teetering, rocking back and forth. We were precariously balanced on a culvert on the side of the road over a small creek.
If the balance tipped forward it would flip the car over, putting us upside down in two feet of water.
I sat there with my heart beating like a hummingbird’s for several seconds. A conglomeration of emotions exploded through my being. I couldn’t keep up with them. Each one was more intense than any feeling I’d ever experienced up until then.
I knew that I dared not move. None of us could, or it could put us all in grave danger, maybe even drown us.
Everybody in the car fell silent. All you could hear was the water trickling in the creek.
The car continued to teeter.
The emotions welling up inside me built to a crescendo. It was going to be impossible for me to contain them anymore. Something was going to express.
But I was afraid. If Bill had a hysterical kid screaming behind him, in his present state, he just might literally beat me to death.
Reason seemed to peel away the hysteria a little here and there until it all came down to two fundamental choices. I had to express something even if it meant flipping into the water.
My choices were to let it fly and scream out—crying uncontrollably—or to burst out laughing.
In that moment, I had an epiphany about life in general. I did have a choice. The emotions didn’t dictate my experience of life. I could make my choice deliberately. It had 100 percent to do with how I defined the experience. The experience itself was neither good nor bad. It just was. What was important was how I defined it.
And so, I made my decision. I relinquished all control and burst out laughing! I consciously chose to identify it as an exciting thrill that we’d all survived, rather than identifying it as the sheer horror I could have called it.
My mom turned around, eyes wide in fear, not sure of how Bill would react. Apparently, I was the only one in the car who identified it as anything but terror.
Bill turned around and stared for a second, then set about determining how we could all get out safely.
That afternoon was sixty years ago, but I remember every detail of it. I’ve referred to it many times in my life.
We have a choice in how we define our experiences. That decision changed the way I saw the rest of my life. I get to choose how I define the events in my life. We all do.
Years later that experience led me to see other parts of my life from a healthier perspective.
Growing up, I resented Bill for what he put us through. No kid should have to endure that kind of psychological and physical abuse. It ate at my heart.
When adult friends discovered some of the things I experienced as a kid, they expressed indignation too. That reinforced my sense of misfortune.
But I remember telling my wife about the spin-out experience one day and I had another insight. I listened to myself saying that I had a choice of how I defined my experiences. My perspective on my entire childhood changed in that moment. I had been defining it in a way that didn’t serve me. But I could change that, just by changing how I identified it.
Had it been scary staring down the wrong end of a double-barreled shotgun at age six? You bet it was! Had it been hard grabbing my pillow, a change of socks and underwear and sneaking out the window to meet my mother and siblings at the car—on several different occasions—growing up? Only to wake up the next morning four states away where I knew no one? Sure.
Most people would say I had a terrible childhood. But they don’t get to define it for me. I do.
I learned how to be flexible, because I had to be. My life changed unpredictably. But I chose not to let that make me bitter and resentful.
I learned how to keep my thoughts to myself when I need to. It came from a survival need and developed into a skill of diplomacy.
I learned how to make friends easily, because I never knew when I would have to leave old friends and establish new friendships. So, I just became a friendly person with everybody around me.
I learned how to adapt and learn new things. It was more productive than trying in vain to hold onto things that may not be possible to keep with me. I learned how to let go. I learned how to embrace new things in life.
I learned how to appreciate people when they offer me help and appreciate my ability to help other people when I can.
I learned how to love people and allow them to love me.
I learned that negatives in life aren’t necessarily negatives. How we choose to identify them makes things negative or positive.
I learned that everybody has challenges that are hard for them. We can endure a lot if we choose.
We get to decide what all that means. Life is simply what it is. We determine what we want it to mean.
So, I urge you, the next time you’re scared or angry or worried, the next time life seems to be dishing out unpleasantries; the next time you feel like life has treated you unfairly; ask yourself, is there another way I can define this? A way that works better for me? A way that can serve me better in the future?
It’s always your choice.