A native of Hungary, Edith Eva Eger was just a young teenager in 1944 when she experienced one of the worst evils the human race has ever known. As a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. Her parents lost their lives there. Edith and her sister Magda survived.
In her recent book “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. No one is better qualified to guide our understanding of ‘victimhood’ and how we can choose not to play the victim.
“Suffering is universal. Victimhood is optional.”
Dr Eger discusses the difference between victimisation and victimhood.
“We are all likely to be victimised 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. Victimisation comes from outside.
Victimhood comes from inside. No one can make you a victim but you. 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.”
People who feel victimised view their lives through a filter. They see events in their lives as happening to them and feel powerless, ineffective and overwhelmed. Their inner voices focus on the injustice of it all.
“It’s not fair. This shouldn’t be happening to me. I don’t deserve such treatment? I’ll never get what I want. ”
Victims keep the focus outside themselves, believing the world is against them. They look for someone to blame for their present circumstances or to determine their purpose, fate, or worth.
Psychologist Dr Ofer Zur says,
“Low self-esteem, a sense of shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, and an internal sense of badness are integral elements in the psychology of those who perceive themselves as victims.”
Internationally acclaimed pianist, James Rhodes, lived the life of a victim. He was sexually abused as a child. He argues that it is possible to be addicted to victimhood. He says,
“There is an addiction that is more destructive and dangerous than any drug, and it is rarely even acknowledged, let alone talked about. It is insidious, pervasive and at epidemic levels. It is the primary cause of the culture of entitlement, laziness and depression that surrounds us. It is an art form, an identity, a way of life and has a bottomless infinite capacity for pain.”
Victims are prone to store up hate, looking for any opportunity to seek revenge, to inflict hurt. Edith’s sister Magda wrestled with the thought of killing a German mother to avenge her mother’s death in the gas chambers.
Dr Eger talks about the futility of revenge. She says,
“It is too easy to make a prison out of our past. At best, revenge is useless. It can’t alter what was done to us, it can’t erase the wrongs we’ve suffered, and it can’t bring back the dead. At worst, revenge perpetuates the cycle of hate. It keeps the hate circling on and on. When we seek revenge, even non-violent revenge, we are revolving, not evolving.”
You can live to avenge the past, or you can live to enrich the present. You can live in the prison of the past, or you can let the past be the springboard that helps you reach the life you want now.
There is a way out of victimhood. There is a way of making peace with suffering and sorrow and injustice. It requires absolute acceptance of what was and what is.
Dr Eger discovered that freedom wasn’t to be found in running from the past, from her fear. It came down to choice. Do I cut myself off from the past and choose silence or do I embrace the dark and choose to heal?
Dr Eger says,
“The past isn’t gone. Every beating, bombing and selection line, every death, every column of smoke pushing skyward, every moment of terror when I thought it was the end – these live on in me, in my memories, in my nightmares.”
The past is what it is. There is nothing to be gained in wishing it were different. It can’t be altered and it can’t be diminished. But it can provide perspective.
Dr Eger lived to see liberation because she kept hope alive in her heart. She lived to see freedom because she learned to forgive.
“Our painful experiences aren’t a liability – they are a gift.”
She came to recognise ‘the classroom of horror’ that was Auschwitz still had something sacred to teach her about how to live.
“…that I was victimised but I’m not a victim, that I was hurt but not broken, that the soul never dies, that meaning and purpose can come from the deep in the heart of what hurts us the most.”
Survivors of suicide loss are candidates for victimhood. The magnitude of their loss encourages a victim mindset, embodying helplessness, powerlessness and resignation. They feel life has conspired to bring them down. They feel defeated. They feel they are being punished and are deserving of their loss. They are consumed with anger, blaming everybody for their misfortune, unwilling to accept that they may have had some part to play.
Psychiatrist Victor Frankl was also a Holocaust survivor. He recognised the power of choice. He says,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Life is shaped by the choices we make and we do have the power to choose. We can choose the darkness or we can choose the light. We can choose to see ourselves as a victim or we can choose to see ourselves as a victor. We can choose to live in a prison of our own making or we can choose to embrace our freedom.