In his essential work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl observed that:
“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.”
If you have not read the book, Frankl writes this while reflecting upon his time in four separate concentration camps in WWII. He reflects upon the power of joy and optimism in what should be an objectively negative experience.
In this quote, Frankl astutely points out that we are not the masters of our fates; we are the masters of our attitudes. Despite our lack of absolute control in choosing our circumstances, we are the masters of the meaning of our moment-to-moment experience. We are the storytellers of our lives because we are the only ones living it. We are the only ones capable of telling that story (and we tell it to ourselves).
The Fundamental Neutrality of Existence
Within Frankl’s observation, I do not just see someone making the most of the tragic circumstances of his present experience. What I see instead is the fundamental neutrality of all experience. The events of our lives will occur regardless of how we feel about them.
When dissected, each moment of our lives is fundamentally neutral, and the same is true in aggregate. As an illustration, take apart this sentence into its components. Take each word as it is:
Take Each Word As It Is
On its own, is any word worthy of a positive or negative judgment? Reconstruct the sentence – when taken out of context, is the sentence worthy of a positive or negative review? Or is each word just one on the page, and each sentence just a string of words on the page, arranged in a way that makes sense to you? Or do the words and constructed sentences and paragraphs simply exist on the page? Do they only mean something in retrospect once our judgment is applied to them?
I would argue that the final sentence is true. The words simply exist, devoid of meaning until we give them one.
So, too, are the circumstances of our lives. Each moment simply exists. Each moment exists independent of our judgment of its meaning. It exists whether we want that moment to live as it is or not. The circumstances that brought it about are indifferent to our acceptance or judgment. While I have written what is above, I have presented it to you without regard for what it will mean to you. It is, therefore, yours to judge. The meaning you will make of it is yours to create.
The beauty in the truth of this last sentence is another fundamental truth of human existence – we are incapable of rendering our circumstances meaningless. We are storytellers – meaning-makers. An imperative of conscious human existence is the judgment of our past as it relates to the present, followed by a projection into the future of what that meaning portends.
The Importance of Optimism
“Optimists win in the long-run because their miscalculation of how long it will take or how likely [they are] to succeed motivates them to give it a try. If you know how hard it [will] be and how long it [will] take in the beginning, then you might not try in the first place.” – James Clear
I favor believing that the past does not exist and that the stories we tell ourselves are fiction. That fiction is based on incomplete, mostly inaccurate memories. Neither does the future exist. It is simply a projection, another fiction that has yet to occur because we cannot know the entire chain of events unfolding as time passes. The problem we face is becoming overly attached to the story we tell ourselves about our past or overly attached to an unlikely outcome.
Past and future are mental constructs in our present experience that steal the beauty and choice presented to us at this moment. Each subtracts from the clarity, curiosity, and appreciation with which we might approach our circumstances. This is not to say that we cannot learn from the past or make plans for the future outcome we desire. Choosing optimism allows us to see opportunities to achieve a goal we have set.
If a human imperative is to make meaning of the past and make future projections, why not choose to see the best of who we have been? Why not choose to appreciate the opportunity in each moment to bias our feelings about our projected future to the positive? Why not choose to see our obvious errors as lessons rather than remain stuck in regret? Why wallow in what might have been? Why remain persistently anxious about what will certainly never be?
Does rumination about missed opportunities serve you now, knowing that you will never be in a position to make that choice again? Understanding the infinite complexity of the world and your relationship to it, does it serve to fret about a future you cannot predict?
Why choose to remain mired in victimhood, regret, or worry when your present circumstances will not bend to the will of any of these emotional states? Why not choose differently?
Is this choice a privilege? Yes. Is it reserved for those considered to be privileged? No. Plenty of unhappy billionaires have exceeded the average human potential by the most quantifiable measurements. So, too, plenty of contended poor people have chosen instead to appreciate other meaningful circumstances in their lives. This choice is a privilege afforded to all of us.
Taking the above to be true, I find it imperative to appreciate the moments we have now as an opportunity to create meaning in our lives. I find it essential to let go of the past to appreciate the opportunities our circumstances present. That past will never exist again as it was. We will never be provided an opportunity to choose differently in any prior circumstance. The imagined will be affected by the present but never happen exactly as we imagine it. Objective lessons learned in the past can show us a way forward as we seek to guide our lives. Still, attachment to any singular outcome is certainly unlikely to materialize.
We are only left with an opportunity to choose now. As Frankl and Clear point out, it is imperative that we choose to approach each moment with a joyful curiosity such that we bias our present attitudes to one of appreciation. Optimism is not hoping that the future will be better than the past or present. Instead, optimism is the cultivation of an appreciation for what is. This habitual appreciation then allows us to create a joyful, impactful, meaningful life. And it all starts now.