Words That Sustain Me: The Gift by Edith Eger

“Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional. There is no way to escape being hurt or oppressed by other people or circumstances. The only guarantee is no matter how kind we are or how hard we work, we’re going to have pain. We’re going to be affecting by environmental and genetic factors over which we have little or no control. But we get to choose whether or not we stay a victim. We don’t get to choose what happens to us but we get to choose how we respond to our experience.”– Edith Eger.

The book that we feature for the month of May is ” The Gift ” by Edith Eger. This book hold special significance to me because it changed my life. In March, 2020, the entire world woke up to the COVID-19 pandemic and from one day to the next the world went on lockdown. For me this lockdown would proceed to last for two years. This meant that the Texas prison system was shut down completely. Social and legal visits were suspended, recreation which was our opportunity to get out of our solitary confinement cell did not exist. And showers were few and far in between.

In one fell swoop all the basic human rights and “privileges” that we had were taken away and I was locked In this cell with no way out and I was having a very difficult time with all of this to say the least. The fact that I was being treated in this inhumane way had driven me to the edge of insanity. I distinctly remember thinking, ” they can’t treat me this way! I have rights!” And I was doing all that I could to resist being treated in this manner. I was asking all my friends to call officials and send emails for me to complain so we could get some relief!

Then one day my precious Quaker friend and spiritual advisor named Glenna sent me a letter informing me that she’d sent me a new book titled The Gift. She had heard great things about it and wanted me to read it so I could have all the tools available to deal with my situation. A few days later, the book arrived.

When I began reading the book I was amazed at what the author was sharing. I read it in two days and what changed my life are these absolute truths:

Suffering is universal. Victimhood is optional. We do not get to choose what happens to us, but we get to choose how we respond to our experience. Victimhood is rigor mortis of the mind, stuck in the past, in the pain, in the loses and deficits. Instead of choosing victimhood, embrace what is happening, move forward, asking what’s next? We’re going to experience pain because freedom comes at a price.

From one day to the next my attitude and my mind set towards life changed. I might be many things, but I was not a moaning and groaning little ball of complaints and grievances whimpering because the universe does not give me what I think I deserve. I refuse to embrace victimhood..

What’s crazy is that I didn’t know that I was embracing victimhood. I was too entangled in the melodrama that was my life and I could not watch myself going through my experiences from the position that Buddhists call the Witness. Which is seeing your life from a disconnected point of view. No, I was feeling all the emotions, and was intimately attached through my desires and wants to what was happening to me.

In 1944, when the author was sixteen and a gymnastics and ballet student, Edith, her parents and older sister were sent to Auschwitz where her parents were murdered in the gas chambers the day they arrived. The first night she was forced to dance for Josef Mengele – aka the angel of death, the man who had scrutinized the new arrivals as they come through the selection line and sent her mother to her death.

“Dance for me!” He ordered, and she recalled her mother’s advice, ” no one can take from you what you’ve put in your mind.” Edith closed her eyes retreated to an inner world and from this private refuge willed her arms to lift and legs to twirl. In this manner Edith summoned the strength to dance for her life.

Each moment in Auschwitz was hell on earth for her. It was also her best classroom. Subjected to loss, torture, starvation and the constant threat of death, the author discovered the tool for survival and freedom that she continues to use in her clinical practice and life today. This fact resonated with me regarding my life experience on Texas death row. Being sentenced to die for a crime that I am innocence of, and locked in a solitary confinement cell for twenty five years BEFORE they murder you in the name of justice is just about the worst thing that they can do to you. I also have lived under constant threat of death for half of my life. But this cell has been my best teacher and has taught me some of the most important lessons in life.

Edith was ninety-two years old when she wrote this book, and The Gift is a practical guide to the healing she’s done in her own life and with her patients as a psychologist in her clinical therapist work.

She also shares that the worst prison is not the one the Nazis put her in. The worst prison is the one she built for herself. This book was created to help us identity our mental prisons and develop the tools we need to become free.

When I was sent to Texas death row I was schooled and bought into the idea that prisoners had constitutional rights and federal law required that we receive basic activities like legal visits with our attorneys, recreation and showers daily. But nobody ever imagined a world wide pandemic that would shut down the entire globe and we would endure a two year lockdown. Neither did i have any idea that in subscribing to this rigid thinking I would create a mental prison for myself with the bars made of victimhood!

The author says that the foundation of freedom is the power to choose how we respond to what happens to us in life. Somehow, someway she found a to respond to the terror and hopelessness by finding a way to choose hope.

I completely agree with her in this regard, we can’t control what happens to us in life but we can control how we respond. It is critical for human beings to lose the concept of learned helplessness, believing there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. Instead flourishing when we harness learned optimism which gives us which provides strength, resiliency, and the ability to create the meaning and direction of our lives.

We must also understand that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior. To change negative, harmful behaviors, we change our thoughts. When we replace our negative beliefs with those that serve support our growth, we change our lives.

When we can change what we think and how we think our choices and behavior also change. And for me especially, realizing that my worst experiences can be my best teachers helped me radically change my life and gain enough wisdom to begin a journey of spiritual enlightenment. That is simply amazing to me.

The author states that freedom is a lifetime practice — a choice we get to make every day. And ultimately, freedom requires hope, which she defines in two ways: the awareness that suffering, however terrible, is temporary and the curiosity to discover what happens next. Hope allows us to live in the pres instead of the past, and to unlock the doors of our mental prisons.

Again, victimhood is rigor mortis of the mind, and hope is the awareness that suffering, however terrible is temporary. And hope is the curiosity that allows us to say, That hurt! Now, what happens next?

The author also offers three initial guideposts to start the reader on the path to freedom.
1. We can’t change until we’re ready.
2. Readiness come from inside of us not the outside.
3. Change can’t be rushed or forced.

You’re ready when you’re ready, when something inside you shifts, and like me, you become sick and tired of being sick and tired and change begins.

Change is about interrupting the habits and patterns that no longer serve us. If you you want to meaningfully alter your life, you don’t simply abandon dysfunctional habits or beliefs you replace them with healthy ones. You chose what you move towards. As you begin your journey, it’s important to reflect not only on what you’d like to be free from, but on what you want to be free to do or become.

I think as we experience life, we change, shedding all this isn’t really us to become who we truly are – the real you and once you learn how to do that you keep becoming who you were born to be!

The Gift contains twelve chapters each dealing with a specific mental prison we might be lock in.

1. Victimhood
2. Avoidance
3. Self-Neglect
4. Secrets
5. Guilt and Shame
6. Unresolved Grief
7. Rigidity
8. Resentment
9. Paralyzing Fear
10. Judgement
11. Hopelessness
12. Not forgiving

I am so grateful for Edith Eger writing this book The Gift because it truly was a precious gift given to me when I was going through a terrible period of suffering and it helped me change my life and become a better human being. An interesting positive development that come from the pandemic lockdown was the prison system realizing they had do give us a way to stay connected to family and friend. And they allowed us to have securus computer tablets.

I really enjoyed reading The Gift this month and hope that it can also help you if you realize there are some areas in your life that you need to work on. I use the wisdom I learned from this book on a daily basis and this is why this book is a must read and worthy to be a book read by our Words That Sustain Me book club!