This week, Monday 8th March 2021, we celebrated International Women’s Day. It seems we were unable to get through even one celebratory week without reading of the killing of yet another young woman in London. In the past twelve months in the UK, 180 women have been killed by men. This post is written in honour of women everywhere, and the families who have lost loved ones to a culture of misogyny and mindless violence.
A Review of ‘The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save your Life’, Dr. Edith Eger
Edith Eger survived Auschwitz, she and her sister were liberated in 1945. By that time her parents and practically everyone else she knew was dead, she was starving and her back had broken from constant physical abuse. She could barely move when the soldiers found her lying on top of a pile of dead bodies. But that was at the end. At the beginning, she still had to learn what being in a concentration camp meant, and how is it possible for a young girl of sixteen who up until a few days previously had been thinking about her boyfriend and a new silk dress, to learn that?
“My first night in Auschwitz, I was forced to dance for SS officer Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, the man who had scrutinized the new arrivals as we came through the selection line that day and sent my mother to her death.
“Dance for me!” he ordered and I stood on the cold concrete floor of the barracks, frozen with fear…. I willed my arms to lift and my legs to twirl. I summoned the strength to dance for my life. ”
She learned to believe some remarkable things.
“They were the prisoners not me. I was able to decide they could never murder my spirits.”
Eger’s two books ‘The Choice ‘ and ‘The Gift’ detail how she found it within herself not only to survive the horrors of Auschwitz but to go on to live with hope, which she is still doing, aged 93. And the one does does automatically follow the other. Survival as many veterans can no doubt testify is not just a matter of outliving something. It involves trying to process trauma, the nightmares, the flashbacks, often for years, decades. Survival may involve being locked in another prison – that of guilt, fear and shame about the past. Part of Eger’s enlightenment in her own journey was that ‘the worst prison was not the one the nazi’s put me in, the worst prison was the one I built in my head.
After the war Eger married, emigrated to the USA and trained in her forties to become a Clinical Psychologist, earning her doctorate in 1978. She has been treating patients in a therapeutic setting for over forty years. She has worked with combat veterans, survivors of sexual assault, students, civic leaders and CEO’s. In order to do that she had to find her way past her own demons.
Like her mentor and fellow Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, Eger believes that our worst experiences can be our best teachers. Although it’s hard to see how any of our experiences can be worse than hers, Eger is clear she doesn’t agree with such thinking, saying:
‘there is no hierarchy of trauma’.
Eger writes that science of cognitive behavioural therapy works on the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behaviour. To change harmful, dysfunctional or self-defeating behaviours, we change our thoughts; we replace our negative beliefs with those that serve and support our growth.
She also teaches the importance of unconditional positive self-regard and that the opposite of depression is expression, taking responsibility for your feelings and expressing your truth.
While suffering is inevitable and universal, we can always choose how we respond.
The foundation of freedom is the power to choose.
This is not about pushing thoughts and feelings away and trying to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist. The author writes,
“Three-quarters of a century after liberation I still have nightmares, I suffer flashbacks. Till the day I die I will grieve the loss of my parents. There’s no freedom in minimizing what happened or in trying to forget. But remembering and honoring are very different from remaining stuck in guilt, shame anger, resentment or fear about the past.”
I can thoroughly recommend listening to this amazing woman talk about her life and work in a podcast on how to discover your inner power. Dr. Eger was Interviewed by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee entitled Feel Better, Live More
Recorded on New Year’s Day 2021 and over a zoom connection, Eger’s compassion and wisdom still shine clear.
‘I don’t live in Auschwitz. I don’t forget it or overcome it. I came to terms with it.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this lady is not the survival of her own trauma but that – after what had happened to her which in the eyes of many is reason enough to despise mankind for ever – she chooses not to despise anyone, but to forgive. She found the courage and compassion to use her life, including its desperate traumas, to help others. It is testament to the power of what she says that the interviewer seems to spend half the time in tears, so moved was he by what she was saying. Dr. Chatterjee introduces the podcast by saying he is not the same person as he was before he read ‘The Gift’. That is a sentiment I can entirely condone.