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Student blog: You can choose how you contend with loss

Author: Snowsports Captain, Indi of Year 11   

 04 Nov 2016

In Year 10, at the Sydney Jewish Museum, our class listened to Eddy, a Holocaust survivor, speak about his experience in Auschwitz. He had lost both his parents in the Holocaust and spent weeks hiding in a forest alone after escaping from a concentration camp. Faced with the horror of genocide, he couldn’t alter the horrific historical situation that he was in but one key thing stood out to me from listening to him speak. He said, over and over, “I am a happy person. Life is precious.”

How is it possible for someone to face such terror, such horror, and still remain optimistic? He emerged from events he couldn’t change, a terror beyond imagination, a hopeful person. His powerlessness in the face of a total evil didn’t defeat him and he didn’t make resignation the sum part of his identity. He made a choice that after what happened to him, he would still find joy and happiness and meaning and dignity even though he couldn’t, at that point in his life, have any power to change what happened to him.

Although it’s impossible to imagine this experience, it teaches us some profoundly important lessons that can be related to our own lives, despite the fact that his hardship was on a scale that we can never comprehend. History tells us that we must learn from his lesson, by asking how can we respond to those things we cannot change?

I am sure you have all heard the prayer, “Grant me to serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” While this is not a particularly radical sentiment, it does carry a message that I think some people find hard to accept. Sometimes we may find ourselves in situations that terrify us.

Recently the Prefects have been talking about being game changers, but I wonder: how do we respond when it seems we are playing a game that has no rules. Maybe I’m just being facetious to make a point, but I don’t think I could singlehandedly stand up to everything that life could possibly throw at me and I don’t think we can always avoid suffering or prevent pain. I don’t think we can always change the world around us, but perhaps we can change our selves.

Maybe we can’t always alter what happens to us, or change the events of our lives or protect ourselves and other people from hurt. But as people we have the power of choice, even when we don’t have any power. John Steinbeck wrote; “Man has a choice and it's a choice that makes him a man.”

You can choose how you contend with loss, and surrender in the face of a situation that offers no other alternative. Faced with the horror of his past experience, Eddy chose to be happy, to appreciate all the love and beauty that remained in the world. We need to consciously recognise the things and people around us that remain good and provide us with happiness even in times of grief, and concentrate on this rather than on the situation around us.

Our emotional state is something that is – largely – within our control. We can consciously choose to focus on those things and people that make us feel happy when we are surrounded by events outside of our control.

So I’m talking about changing a different game. Maybe there will be times when we cannot alter the situations around us but you can alter your personal game, your mental approach to experiences and situations in life that you can do nothing about.

Eddy made a powerful decision in a completely powerless time of total misery, suffering and grief. He decided that despite the horror of what he was experiencing, when it was over he would be happy with what he still had.

You can change your world, even when you can’t change THE world. It’s a complicated and slightly confusing paradox. But what it means it that we have a choice to make about how we contend with life changing events that we have no option but to endure. We are able to decide to retain integrity, dignity and focus on finding happiness where it remains.

I wonder if it’s possible to approach resignation, tragedy, even failure with a mindset of serenity, hoping to accept that I can’t control everything, and I wonder if this is in fact the mindset of a game changer.