It’s Not About What Happens to You, It’s About How You Respond

Lessons on suffering from Viktor Frankl and Nelson Mandela.

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist, psychologist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, widely regarded as one of the most influential books of our time. Frankl was also a Holocaust survivor, where he was subjected to horrific crimes, including torture, starvation, and the expectancy of hourly extermination. During this time, he lost everything, including his entire family who perished in the camps.

Nelson Mandela suffered a similar fate. Wrongly imprisoned in 1962, he was sent to Robben Island, a former leper colony, where the warder’s first words were: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.” Mandela spent most of his 27-year prison sentence here, where he was made to work under torturous conditions. His only refuge, a cell measuring 8 x 7 feet, had nothing but a bucket and straw bed.

However, Mandela did not allow his ill-treatment to control his behaviour. Instead, he used reflective thinking, contemplation, and meditation to sharpen his mind. According to his Lawyer, George Bizo, he even kept his cool and wit.

Frankl used similar tactics to survive the abject misery of four concentration camps. Rather than reacting to his external environment, he continued to exercise the most important freedom of all, the freedom to control his own his inner-life, as he alone decided how he responded to the appalling conditions.

‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’ — Viktor Frankl

The Nature of Suffering

Life is full of challenges, most of which we have no control over. This might sound disheartening, but realizing this is a source of strength.
Why? Because we always have a choice over how we respond to challenging events, even extremely difficult ones. What’s more, it is not the challenge itself, but our reaction to it, that causes most of our suffering.

The following metaphor explains this best:
‘First darts’ are inescapable pains that life throws at us. It might be emotional pain, like a tough breakup, a lost opportunity, or the death of a loved one. Or it might be physical pain, like putting your hand on a hot stove. These unavoidable pains are the essence of human existence, and if you live and love, some of these will fall on your doorstep.

In reality, however, most of our suffering is not caused by first darts. It is caused by how we respond to them. ‘Second darts’ are the darts we throw at ourselves. These are our reactions to first darts, and this is where much of our suffering lies.

Consider this example. A colleague is complaining about the quality of your work — first dart. The second dart — anger or retaliation — soon follows. You seek them out to give them a piece of your mind, but you step over the line.

Second darts frequently trigger more second darts. So now you feel guilty about your anger, and miserable about your guilt. Wrapped up in your misery, you might pick a fight with your partner, or wake up the following day, and take it out on a friend.

These second dart reactions are more common than you think.

How often have you argued with your boss, before you’ve even gotten out of the shower?

How many times have you brought the morning traffic into work?

How often have you brought work problems home for dinner?

This is the essence of suffering — secondary reactions to painful events, which are often more destructive than the original experience.

Letting Go

If secondary reactions are the essence of suffering, how can we let them go, or at least limit these second dart reactions?

Instead of resisting first darts, you should accept them completely. If you do have a tough breakup, or lose out on a great opportunity, accept it and move on. It’s our resistance to pain that causes our suffering.

Similarly, you could sit with first dart pain in mindful awareness. This might sound contradictory, but research shows that fully feeling pain diminishes its power.

Lastly, stop obsessing about painful experiences. First darts open wounds, but second darts keep them open. So stop picking the scab, and let it heal. Thinking about what you should have done won’t change a thing.

All You Need to Know

We all face challenges in life, most of which we have no control over. Some of these will be painful, but if you focus on what you can control, you don’t have to suffer.

Next time you’re faced with a difficult situation, instead of resisting what you cannot change, exercise the freedom of your own inner-world, because only then will you be truly free.



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