In Spite of Everything, you are not a Victim of Your Circumstances

hope, victim, joy, victor

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“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.”

–Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

“Sometimes the world around you makes you do things you would never do out of the circumstances”
― Haidji, SG – Suicide Game

“Happiness has to do with your mindset, not with outside circumstance.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free.

“Today is a new day. Don’t let your history interfere with your destiny! Let today be the day you stop being a victim of your circumstances and start taking action towards the life you want. You have the power and the time to shape your life. Break free from the poisonous victim mentality and embrace the truth of your greatness. You were not meant for a mundane or mediocre life!”
― Steve Maraboli.

― Nadia Sahari, Breakaway: How I Survived Abuse.

“A man is worked upon by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well.”
― Frederick Douglass, The Portable Frederick Douglass.

“No human being should be maltreated under any circumstances. We are all wonderful creation of God. May we affectionately love one another.”
― Lailah Gifty Akita, Pearls of Wisdom: Great mind.

It was 7 PM on December 24, 2000. My boss and owner of the Insurance company I worked for called me to his office.

“Mr. Gacheru,  ” he cleared his voice,  after I had sat down.

“Our company has decided to let you go, ”  he said,  looking straight at me.

“Today is your last day,  ” he continued to say, for a minute I felt total shock, I felt rejection and anger.  I had sacrificed time and money to take insurance brokerage training,  I had passed all the certifications.

“Why?” I asked, I couldn’t believe how unkind and inhuman he was,  firing me just before Christmas.

There was silence.

“You have ten minutes to take all your belongings,  ” he continued,  “you can now leave my office. ” I left teary, I didn’t know what to tell my wife. As I walked home in anger, I wondered if I was fired because I am of African background,  I wondered if I was fired because the employer’s clients didn’t want to be served by someone from other background, all these feelings circled through my mind. 

After much reflection,  counsel of my wife and friends,  I decided to return back to school,  this time I wanted to choose a career in nursing.  I registered at the University of Manitoba for the accelerated Bachelor of Nursing degree. I am very happy that made this choice,  because I love nursing so much and I don’t think insurance industry would have given me such joy.

Looking back now, I am thankful that I took the highroads when I was fired from the insurance job. As a Kenyan Canadian, I had every opportunity at the time to feel the rejection,  the sting of racism and I could have played the victim card. It is probably true that racism might have played role on how I was treated and I had every right to complain to Manitoba Human Rights or Manitoba Labor. I didn’t complain, the issue was too painful that I chose to leave it, I didn’t have the energy to go that way.  Where I felt new hope and energy was pursuing a new career.  Choosing new career lift away my pain of rejection. It gave me a new pathway to healing,  through this new pathway my narrative changed: I was no longer a victim of the firing.

With time, I have come to understand that our lives are physical expressions of the narrative we tell ourselves everyday. This narrative is a story about the world the world around us which we adopt and act as a character in. How we see ourselves in light of our past and current circumstances determines the role we play. We’re either the victim, blaming others for our lives, or the victor, taking responsibility for our lives. And if we are  honest with ourselves, we all go back and forth between victim and victor.

Unfortunately, none of us are immune from the feelings of feeling  rejection when we are unfairly treated by others. We feel this when someone provides unfair treatment based on gender,  age, race, education or religion. What I learned is reflecting on the past in order to heal is necessary, but living in the past hurts of unfairness is more hurtful.

Taking one-hundred percent responsibility for our lives, though may look strange, is the path to healing and freedom. I know this sounds harsh, but blaming others for our current pain never leads to healing, and that goes for any group that has experienced injustice, whether marginalised groups such as women, religious groups, the LGBT and Two Spirit communities, the homeless and the poor.

The story of Nelson Mandela has a lot to teach us. While in prison for 27 years, Mandela discovered that his greatest opponent wasn’t his oppressors, but the pain that lived inside of him. It wasn’t until he let go of the pain by the act of forgiveness that he found freedom. The prison walls nor his captors could confine him anymore. Imagine that; in prison he found freedom.Actually he was released, he went the extra mile to show the world how he turned victimhood into victorhood. In his path to  freedom and healing, Mandela  invited the prison guards who most probably tortured or had beaten him up to his inaugural ceremony. What is more? Mandela invited the state prosecutor, Percy Yutar, who was seeking the death penalty against him to lunch at the Presidential mansion. Nelson Mandela had no victim mentality and was free both from the physical confinement of prison walls and also the mental prison of revenge and bitterness. Percy Yutar told journalists: “I wonder in what other country in the world would you have the head of the government inviting someone to lunch who prosecuted him thirty years ago.”

The victim narrative blinds us to feel helpless. We feel paralyzed, unable to take responsibility and make decisions that would move us forward. Deep down we might even believe we deserve to suffer, or that the only way to get attention and love is if others feel sorry for us. These victim narratives remind us that we have no power over our future and no personal responsibility for our lot in life. If you keep telling this narrative we’ll continue to abdicate responsibility and wait for the an outsider to come to redeem us. Instead of looking externally, we need to look internally; that’s where true change begins.

My friends, setbacks and things, unfortunately occur in lives. But here is the secret, our power is located in how we respond to these setbacks! We can’t magically control the circumstances we find ourselves in with our lives but we absolutely are in control of the response that comes from us when something bad happens or we feel that we are not satisfied.

Look at the story of Viktor E. Frankl. In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor tells the story of how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning in the experience, which gave him the will to live through it.

When Viktor Frankl arrived at Auschwitz, he had no clue what was going on or what was to be done with him. He wasn’t alone in his confusion, as many of the prisoners also failed to realize that they were no longer free to do as they please. Frankl even recalls people asking if they can bring their personal belongings with them as if they were traveling on vacation rather than being held prisoner. It wasn’t until they were ordered to line up that people began to realize the horror of their situation. 

The SS officers began barking orders, shouting at everyone to form two lines: Women in one line, men in the other. At the front of each line was an SS officer, pointing left and right after briefly looking over each person. What was he doing? Judging every prisoner’s fitness to work. To be sent to the left meant one’s personal items would be confiscated, their hair shaved, and they would begin work immediately. To be sent to the right meant one was unfit for work and would be put to death in a gas chamber. As Frankl writes this, one can imagine the sheer helplessness of the situation. Throughout it all, though, Frankl remained composed. He chose to keep a composed demeanor—his response to his circumstances being the only thing within his power to control. When it was Frankl’s turn at the front of the line, he did everything he could do to look strong and resilient. It worked, and he was sent to work. His willingness to accept his situation is not just something to be admired, but also adopted. Beyond that first day, not knowing whether he’d be sent to the right or left, whether he would be killed or forced into hard labor, Frankl learned to remain indifferent to his circumstances. He chose his attitude and moved forward in his own way. Frankl summarizes this brilliantly when he writes “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.”

When Frankl, emaciated from concentration camps, returned to his beloved Vienna, no one was there to meet him. His mother had been gassed at Auschwitz. His brother had been killed in another camp. His wife, Tilly, had starved to death in the women’s camp at Bergen-Bergen. Now, he wondered, what was the point of his life?

“I decided not to commit suicide—at least not before I had reconstructed my first book, The Doctor and the Soul….” After Frankl finished that book, friends who read it asked him to write another, this time about his experience in the concentration camps. He poured out Man’s Search for Meaning in just nine days, weeping in an empty room with windows bombed out from the war. He went on to later establish a new school of existential therapy called logotherapy, based in the premise that man’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances.

In his story, Frankl also reminds us, “Everything can be taken from a man or woman 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.” We may have limited power or control over our environment and the circumstances we find ourselves in. In the case of the prisoners-of-war, control over their surroundings was almost non-existent. Yet, even in such extreme external suffering, the inner self can remain whole and healthy, full of hope and wisdom. While the human mind tends to respond to bodily torture by becoming fixated on trivial thoughts, such as food and cigarettes, there is still a part of us that can transcend this obsessive focus by using our thoughts and imagination to bring ourselves into the future, where numerous meaningful, riveting possibilities await. 

There are plenty of things in life that aren’t within your control. You can’t control other people, certain health problems, or how the world around you operates. You can however, always choose your attitude. Choosing to go through life with a positive attitude and a desire to be a survivor rather than a victim is up to you.

No matter how bad things are, you always have choices. You can choose to get back up when life pushes you down, even if you don’t feel like. Learning how to tolerate distress will give you more confidence that what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.

You were put on this earth because you’re strong enough to live it. Don’t waste time wishing things were different or insisting that life isn’t fair. Life wasn’t meant to be fair. It was meant to be lived, no matter what circumstances you encounter. Make a conscious choice to live a life that’s worth living, even when you don’t feel like it.


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