What's the most important choice we make every day?
The Choice: Embrace the Possible , by Edith Eger 2017
Five of five stars *****
The gold standard for books about the holocaust has to me always been Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, a haunting and inspiring account of Nazi death camps, first published right after World War II in 1946. The Choice, by holocaust survivor Edith Eger, came out some 70 years later, is an amazing story of strength and resilience that compliments Frankl's book. Interestingly, the two authors knew each other well and met several times, as detailed in this book.
The Choice is actually three books in one. The first part details Dr. Eger's family life in Nazi-occupied Hungary and how she, her parents, and her sisters negotiated the dangerous early years of the war. Hitler and the Nazi's finally began cracking down on the Hungarian Jews in the Spring of 1944, sending most of the Jewish population to death camps. Dr. Eger, then age 16, and most of her family were sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and father were immediately killed. She and her sister spent 7 grueling months in the camp fearing for their lives as they waited for the possibility of death around every corner.
In January of 1945, as the Russians approached, she was among a group of prisoners who were made to march westward. This trek became a death march that killed most of the prisoners, since they were all starving, ridden with diseases, and barely able to walk. Those who couldn't keep up were shot. Dr. Eger credited her survival on this march to the karma she received back from another prisoner with whom she had earlier shared a precious loaf of bread. Somehow, near death herself, she was pulled from a pile of corpses by an American GI and soon reunited with her sister, who also miraculously survived.
The second part of the book details her long and arduous struggle back to health and sanity in post-war Europe. Dr Eger recounts the story of how she finds her strength again, reunites with her other sister, falls in love, marries, and has a baby. The stories here are almost as dramatic as her experiences in Auschwitz. Her baby almost dies and is saved by black market penicillin. Her husband is jailed by the Communists and she is able to save him with a bribe to a guard, while they make a dash for a train to Austria barely ahead of the guards pursuing them.
From Austria, Dr. Eger has good fortune to get papers allowing her to emigrate to America, and she talks her husband out of a planned move to Israel. Instead, they head to El Paso, Texas. Through all this she navigates raising three children, helping her husband with his tuberculosis, and all the other hardships that awaited poor immigrants to America in those days. While many holocaust survivors she interviewed found their paths stuck by sadness, fear, and hate, Dr. Eger was able to construct a new life in a new country and eventually pursue her passion in human psychology.
While I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't discovered this story yet, the third part of the book is the best part- where she gets to examine her own grief and explain her formula for overcoming hardships. Dr. Eger became a licensed psychologist and PhD and went to work helping others overcome their pain as she had. The book contains some great detailed therapy session recaps, where the names of the patients have been changed. One particularly haunting session involved a patient who became homicidal after unlocking his secret, and how she was able to talk him back down even as he pointed a gun at her. These descriptions are amazing and inspiring in their own right, as she shows how she opened up a world of hope to patients who were shut down and miserable. It's a great presentation of CBT- cognitive behavioral therapy and how talk therapy can change a life.
The author talks about how for so long she wasn't able to think about her time in Auschwitz. She didn't want her children to know the awful details. Towards the end of the book she deals with the healing that took place when she went back there many years later. Touring the old camp with her husband, sleeping in a bed that once held Goebbels, she learned to embrace the darkness and forgive herself and all those involved. That didn't make the events there any less evil, but it released her to create the present and future that weren't chained to that dark past.
The title of the book comes from Victor Frankls' own words, which inspired the author on her own journey. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof 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.”
Dr. Eger calls her type of therapy choice therapy, because freedom is about choice. A dancer by training, she presents her three rules for returning to the dance of freedom:
1- Take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Notice them, accept them, and stay with them until they go away.
2- Take risks and take the necessary actions to propel yourself to self-realization.
3- Let go of the past or the grief of what was or could have been.
The big idea I got from this book is that our core beliefs act both as a fortress and a prison. From childhood we latch onto certain thoughts and beliefs that then get buried deep inside of our brains, so deep they become the core of our identity. No matter what conflicting evidence presents itself, we guard those beliefs religiously, because we think that without them the world makes no sense. The problem is that many of those core beliefs are wrong and hurtful. They are passed on to us by well-meaning prior generations, or seared into our skulls by traumatic events. For a while they serve to protect us, but as things change in our world, they hold us back. To be truly free you must challenge these core beliefs and weed out the ones that no longer serve you.
Core beliefs like "Jews are bad", or "I deserve pain because I'm a Jew" are what let the holocaust happen. In today's world we're stuck with things like "nobody likes me," "people with different views are scary," or "I'm not deserving." Faulty core beliefs imprison us today just like they've done throughout history, and they are extremely hard to fix. Therapy is the best known way to get to the bottom of these beliefs and replace them with better ones. The fact that Dr. Eger was able to become so psychologically strong and healthy after witnessing so many horrible things should give us all hope.
So if you're feeling sorry for yourself over your problems, this book is a wake up call. This woman overcame ten lifetimes full of problems and became a world famous author and psychologist. Her story is amazing, and her strength is inspiring.