“What follows is the story of the choices, big and small, that can lead us from trauma to triumph, from darkness to light, from imprisonment to freedom.” Edith Eger
In 1944, sixteen-year-old Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz. There she endured unimaginable experiences, including being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. Over the coming months, Edith’s bravery helped her sister to survive and led to her bunkmates rescuing her during a death march. When their camp was finally liberated, Edith was pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.
In The Choice, Dr Edith Eger shares her experience of the Holocaust and the remarkable stories of those she has helped ever since. Today, she is an internationally acclaimed psychologist whose patients include survivors of abuse and soldiers suffering from PTSD.
She explains how many of us live within a mind that has become a prison and shows how, once we confront our suffering, we can choose freedom. With all the power of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, but exceptional in its own right,
The Choice is life changing. Warm, compassionate and infinitely wise, it is a profound examination of the human spirit, and our capacity to heal.
Edith, aged 16, not long before the nightmare began.
Dr. Eger’s life has been full of darkness. She was imprisoned at Auschwitz when she was just a teenager. Despite torture, starvation, and the constant threat of annihilation, she preserved her mental and spiritual freedom. She was not broken by the horrors she experienced; she was emboldened and strengthened by them. In fact, her wisdom comes from deep within the most devastating episodes of her life.
She is able to help others heal because she has journeyed from trauma to triumph herself. She has discovered how to use her experience of human cruelty to empower so many.
For all of us who suffer from the everyday disappointments and challenges of life, her message inspires us to make our own choice to find freedom from suffering—to find our own inner light.
I have seen it happen again and again: people are transformed in Edie’s presence.
Her goal is nothing less than to help each of us to escape the prisons of our own minds. Each of us is in some way mentally imprisoned, and it is Edie’s mission to help us realize that just as we can act as our own jailors, we can also be our own liberators.
Edie has helped me to discover that heroism is not the province only of those who perform extraordinary deeds or take impulsive risks to protect themselves or others—though Edie has done both of these things. Heroism is rather a mind-set or an accumulation of our personal and social habits. It is a way of being. And it is a special way of viewing ourselves. To be a hero requires taking effective action at crucial junctures in our lives, to make an active attempt to address injustice or create positive change in the world. To be a hero requires great moral courage. And each of us has an inner hero waiting to be expressed. We are all “heroes in training.” Our hero training is life, the daily circumstances that invite us to practice the habits of heroism: to commit daily deeds of kindness; to radiate compassion, starting with self-compassion; to bring out the best in others and ourselves; to sustain love, even in our most challenging relationships; to celebrate and exercise the power of our mental freedom. Edie is a hero—and doubly so, because she teaches each of us to grow and create meaningful and lasting change in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our world.
Dr. Eger is one of the dwindling number of survivors who can bear first-hand testimony to the horrors of the concentration camps. Her book recounts the hell and trauma that she and other survivors endured during and after the war. And it is a universal message of hope and possibility to all who are trying to free themselves from pain and suffering. Whether imprisoned by bad marriages, destructive families, or jobs they hate, or imprisoned within the barbed wire of self-limiting beliefs that trap them in their own minds, readers will learn from this book that they can choose to embrace joy and freedom regardless of their circumstances.
The Choice is an extraordinary chronicle of heroism and healing, resiliency and compassion, survival with dignity, mental toughness, and moral courage. All of us can learn from Dr. Eger’s inspiring cases and riveting personal story to heal our own lives.
Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, Phil Zimbardo is the creator of the famed Stanford prison experiment (1971) and author of many notable books, including the New York Times bestseller and winner of the William James Book Award for best psychology book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007). He is founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project.
The Choice by Dr Edith Eger
“Why now?” I asked. This was my secret weapon. The question I always ask my patients on a first visit. I need to know why they are motivated to change. Why today, of all days, do they want to start working with me? Why is today different from yesterday, or last week, or last year? Why is today different from tomorrow?
Sometimes our pain pushes us, and sometimes our hope pulls us. Asking “Why now?” isn’t just asking a question, it’s asking everything.
I know from clinical and personal experience that even when someone chooses to heal, he or she can remain frozen for years.
I feared that if I recommended Jason to be hospitalized and medicated without first exploring other options, he would trade one kind of numbness for another, frozen limbs for the involuntary movements of dyskinesia—an uncoordinated dance of repeating tics and motions, when the nervous system sends the signal for the body to move without the mind’s permission. His pain, whatever its cause, might be muted by the drugs, but it wouldn’t be resolved. He might feel better, or feel less—which we often mistake for feeling better—but he would not be healed.
I had only one hour. One opportunity. Could I reach him? Could I help him to dissolve his potential for violence, which I could sense as clearly as the air conditioner’s blast across my skin? Could I help him see that whatever his trouble and whatever his pain, he already held the key to his own freedom? I couldn’t have known then that if I failed to reach Jason on that very day, a fate far worse than a hospital room awaited him—a life in an actual prison, probably on death row. I only knew then that I had to try.
As I studied Jason, I knew that to reach him I wouldn’t use the language of feelings; I would use a language more comfortable and familiar to someone in the military. I would give orders. I sensed that the only hope for unlocking him was to get the blood moving through his body.
I would discover soon enough the origin of Jason’s trauma, and he would discover that despite our obvious differences, there was much we shared. We both knew violence. And we both knew what it was like to become frozen. I also carried a wound within me, a sorrow so deep that for many years I hadn’t been able to speak of it at all, to anyone.
My past still haunted me: an anxious, dizzy feeling every time I heard sirens, or heavy footsteps, or shouting men. This, I had learned, is trauma: a nearly constant feeling in my gut that something is wrong, or that something terrible is about to happen, the automatic fear responses in my body telling me to run away, to take cover, to hide myself from the danger that is everywhere. My trauma can still rise up out of mundane encounters. A sudden sight, a particular smell, can transport me back to the past.
The day I met Captain Fuller, more than thirty years had passed since I’d been liberated from the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Today, more than seventy years have passed. What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed. But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past. I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful—I can be depressed, or I can be happy. We always have that choice, that opportunity for control. I’m here, this is now, I have learned to tell myself, over and over, until the panicky feeling begins to ease.
Conventional wisdom says that if something bothers you or causes you anxiety, then just don’t look at it. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t go there. So we run from past traumas and hardships or from current discomfort or conflict. For much of my adulthood I had thought my survival in the present depended on keeping the past and its darkness locked away. Not that I would have wanted to tell you I was there even if I could have. I didn’t want anyone’s pity. I didn’t want anyone to know.
In my yearning to belong, in my fear of being swallowed up by the past, I worked very hard to keep my pain hidden. I hadn’t yet discovered that my silence and my desire for acceptance, both founded in fear, were ways of running away from myself—that in choosing not to face the past and myself directly, decades after my literal imprisonment had ended, I was still choosing not to be free. I had my secret, and my secret had me.
The catatonic Army captain sitting immobile on my couch reminded me of what I had eventually discovered: that when we force our truths and stories into hiding, secrets can become their own trauma, their own prison. Far from diminishing pain, whatever we deny ourselves the opportunity to accept becomes as inescapable as brick walls and steel bars.
When we don’t allow ourselves to grieve our losses, wounds, and disappointments, we are doomed to keep reliving them. Freedom lies in learning to embrace what happened. Freedom means we muster the courage to dismantle the prison, brick by brick.
Bad things, I am afraid, happen to everyone. This we can’t change. If you look at your birth certificate, does it say life will be easy? It does not. But so many of us remain stuck in a trauma or grief, unable to experience our lives fully. This we can change.
Even the dullest moments of our lives are opportunities to experience hope, buoyancy, happiness. Mundane life is life too. As is painful life, and stressful life. Why do we so often struggle to feel alive, or distance ourselves from feeling life fully?
Why is it such a challenge to bring life to life? If you asked me for the most common diagnosis among the people I treat, I wouldn’t say depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, although these conditions are all too common among those I’ve known, loved, and guided to freedom. No, I would say hunger. We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves.
My own search for freedom and my years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist have taught me that suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.
There is a difference between victimization and victimhood. We are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control. This is life. And this is victimization. It comes from the outside. It’s the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital.
In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim’s mind—a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.
I want to make one thing very clear. When I talk about victims and survivors, I am not blaming victims—so many of whom never had a chance. I could never blame those who were sent right to the gas chambers or who died in their cot, or even those who ran into the electric barbed wire fence. I grieve for all people everywhere who are sentenced to violence and destruction. I live to guide others to a position of empowerment in the face of all of life’s hardships.
I also want to say that there is no hierarchy of suffering. There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another. People say to me, “Things in my life are pretty hard right now, but I have no right to complain—it’s not Auschwitz.” This kind of comparison can lead us to minimize or diminish our own suffering.
Being a survivor, being a “thriver” requires absolute acceptance of what was and what is. If we discount our pain, or punish ourselves for feeling lost or isolated or scared about the challenges in our lives, however insignificant these challenges may seem to someone else, then we’re still choosing to be victims. We’re not seeing our choices. We’re judging ourselves. I don’t want you to hear my story and say, “My own suffering is less significant.” I want you to hear my story and say, “If she can do it, then so can I!”
One morning I saw two patients back to back, both mothers in their forties. The first woman had a daughter who was dying of hemophilia. She spent most of her visit crying, asking how God could take her child’s life. I hurt so much for this woman—she was absolutely devoted to her daughter’s care, and devastated by her impending loss. She was angry, she was grieving, and she wasn’t at all sure that she could survive the hurt.
My next patient had just come from the country club, not the hospital. She, too, spent much of the hour crying. She was upset because her new Cadillac had just been delivered, and it was the wrong shade of yellow.
On the surface, her problem seemed petty, especially compared to my previous patient’s anguish over her dying child. But I knew enough about her to understand that her tears of disappointment over the color of her car were really tears of disappointment over the bigger things in her life that hadn’t worked out the way she had hoped—a lonely marriage, a son who had been kicked out of yet another school, the aspirations for a career she had abandoned in order to be more available for her husband and child. Often, the little upsets in our lives are emblematic of the larger losses; the seemingly insignificant worries are representative of greater pain.
I realized that day how much my two patients, who appeared so different, had in common—with each other and with all people everywhere. Both women were responding to a situation they couldn’t control in which their expectations had been upended. Both were struggling and hurting because something was not what they wanted or expected it to be; they were trying to reconcile what was with what ought to have been.
Each woman’s pain was real. Each woman was caught up in the human drama—that we find ourselves in situations we didn’t see coming and that we don’t feel prepared to handle. Both women deserved my compassion. Both had the potential to heal. Both women, like all of us, had choices in attitude and action that could move them from victim to survivor even if the circumstances they were dealing with didn’t change.
Survivors don’t have time to ask, “Why me?” For survivors, the only relevant question is, “What now?”
Whether you’re in the dawn or noon or late evening of your life, whether you’ve seen deep suffering or are only just beginning to encounter struggle, whether you’re falling in love for the first time or losing your life partner to old age, whether you’re healing from a life-altering event or in search of some little adjustments that could bring more joy to your life, I would love to help you discover how to escape the concentration camp of your own mind and become the person you were meant to be. I would love to help you experience freedom from the past, freedom from failures and fears, freedom from anger and mistakes, freedom from regret and unresolved grief, and the freedom to enjoy the full, rich feast of life.
We cannot choose to have a life free of hurt. But we can choose to be free, to escape the past, no matter what befalls us, and to embrace the possible. I invite you to make the choice to be free.
Like the challah my mother used to make for our Friday night meal, this book has three strands: my story of survival, my story of healing myself, and the stories of the precious people I’ve had the privilege of guiding to freedom. I’ve conveyed my experience as I can best remember it. The stories about patients accurately reflect the core of their experiences, but I have changed all names and identifying details and in some instances created composites from patients working through similar challenges.
What follows is the story of the choices, big and small, that can lead us from trauma to triumph, from darkness to light, from imprisonment to freedom.
by Dr Edith Eger.
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