I was listening to a TED Radio Hour podcast called “Crisis and Response,” about how various people dealt with crises in their lives. One was a doctor on Mt. Everest during a deadly storm memorialized in Jon Krakauer’s amazing book, Into Thin Air. Another was a story about 741741, the amazingly important text hotline for people in crisis. The segment I want to talk about was about a man named Matt Weinstein. Weinstein was one of the people who lost his life’s savings to the Bernie Madoff scam, which fell apart when the great recession hit in 2008.
Weinstein had been angry for quite a while and, understandably, was having trouble getting past it. Then he was at a dinner with a bunch of people who also lost their savings in the scam. One of them suggested they go around the room and say what one thing they would do differently if they could. The first three people said they wouldn’t have changed a thing because of how their lives had changed since the scam—the way they connected with family and friends; the way they became more present; the way they were viewing their lives.
He was stunned at their reactions, and that was when he began to realize he didn’t have to be a perpetual victim—that it’s not what happens that defines you, it’s how you internalize it. He learned you can grow and learn from everything that happens to you.
Quotes from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who lived from the years 55 to 135 A.D., impacted him greatly. Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them,” meaning your happiness is not about what happens to you, it’s how you react to it from the stories you tell yourself about what happens. Epictetus also said, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them. We can always choose how we react.” Weinstein now says something to the effect of, “Yes, Madoff stole our money, but we had to make sure he didn’t steal the rest of our lives.”
That reminded me of the Nelson Mandela quote when he was released after unjustly serving 27 years in prison: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Some of my favorite writers have written about similar concepts. The late Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote extensively about choosing how we react—about the importance of responding rather than reacting by pausing between stimulus and response. He had been inspired by Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor who wrote the amazing book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was unable to choose his external circumstances, but his story of how he chose to respond to them is incredibly inspiring.
Soon after Madoff was arrested, I read an article about local people who had been victims of the scam. One was my landlord, a man named Burt Ross, who lost his $5 million life savings. As a result of that publicity, I learned about Ross’ amazing story as someone who had stood up to the mafia, turning down an attempted bribe when he was the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ in the 1970s.
But as sensational as the mafia story was, what sticks with me most about Burt is how he reacted to the Madoff scam. In a 2009 article, he said he was keeping the losses in perspective. “I’m not pretending it’s not sad,” he said, “but I am fine and my family is fine.” Then, in 2011, he was quoted sounding like Mandela: “I felt that, by putting the anger away a couple years ago, I was going to get through life a lot better.”
What has your experience been differentiating between what happens to you and how you react to it? Please join the conversation with your comments…