Why I read it
I recently heard Dr Eger speak on the Dr Chatterjee podcast. She was wise, warm, reflective, and profound. An Auschwitz survivor, who went on to become a doctor of clinical psychology, Eger has used her experiences to help shape the lives of others, and, upon hearing her voice, I could feel her innate desire for people everywhere to lead happy, fulfilled lives. My interest was initially piqued by my own visit to Auschwitz, as well as an admiration for holocaust literature (sparked by a module that my wife did at university). But I suppose, now that I reflect on it, I wanted to see how we might find the beauty and hope that can emerge from the darkest situations.
‘The worst prisons are the ones we build ourselves’. ‘The prison is in your mind. The key is in your pocket’.
In her first book, The Choice, Eger gave an account of her time in Auschwitz, whereas The Gift is more of a guidebook with how to deal with trauma, difficulty, or feelings of discontent. The Gift refers to life itself, and the book aims to instruct us how to make the most of it.
The premise is that we create different mental prisons for ourselves. No matter what the situation is, we have created that prison. Even in the confines of Auschwitz, amidst oppression and persecution, Eger chose hope and freedom: freedom in her mind. The book contends that once we realise that we have the keys to these mental prisons, we can overcome anything.
Every chapter reflects on a different ‘prison’, for example fear, guilt, avoidance, and weaves in anecdotes from Eger’s life, her patients, and general musings. What I like most is that her advice is direct and assertive; she won’t allow us to settle for less than fulfilment, and therefore gives us brutal honesty about our behaviour and how we can change in order to thrive.
Finally, while most of the book is about mind set, each chapter finishes with 3-5 practical strategies you could implement to progress in that chapter’s focus.
- Capacity to choose – it sounds simple to state that we can always choose how to respond to a situation, but allow me to quote Eger herself for a more eloquent explanation than I could muster. ‘When nothing helpful or nourishing is coming from the outside, that is precisely the moment when we have the possibility to discover who we are. When we escape our mental prisons, we not only become free from what held us back, but free to exercise our own freewill.’ Choose freedom.
- ‘Suffering is universal. Victimhood is optional’ – Eger explains that we will all know pain and suffering in our lives, but the problem is that many spend too much time asking ‘why?’. She calls this phase of victimhood as ‘rigor mortis of the mind’, being stuck in the past about something that can’t be changed. We have to reframe our thinking to ‘what now’. Staying a victim allows us to achieve nothing, it is an excuse that admonishes our responsibility to move on; freedom comes with a price and calls us to be accountable for our behaviour.
- The prison of rigidity – a lot has been written about the power of diverse thinking in productive teams. But we can become rigid in both our views, and in our expectations of others. Eger cites that conflict can be necessary to share our feelings and perspectives, and that a marker of freedom is how open we are to hear the views of others. Furthermore, it’s important not to deny others their own truths – we are all different – and that is freedom.
This comes from the chapter of takeaway 3:
‘The key to maintaining your freedom during a conflict is to hold your truth, while relinquishing the need for power and control. It helps when we can meet others as they are, not as we expect them to be’
The final sentence really spoke to me, and is something I will keep close if I find myself feeling cynical or resentful about the views or actions of others.
Dr Eger served on the prisoner-of-war advisory committee every year, which convened at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Year after year, she would attend the meetings, without setting foot in the museum – she avoided the inevitable trauma of reliving her experiences. And then, one year, she stepped in, and faced her past. She got into the mock cattle-car and, in the ‘Avoidance’ chapter, describes in detail the sensory and emotional overload. The point of the story wasn’t to present a fantastical overcoming of all trauma, but to take one step. It’s a beautiful description to read.
Question and reflect
- The Gift made me consider myself more than any other book has to date; even in the chapters that I’ve experienced little of, e.g. grief, I found myself spending minutes at a time reflecting afterwards. How do I feel about that? How would I react if that happened to me? How could I help others if they befell this feeling or event? I’m more aware of my mental prisons, but also now possess a greater understanding that we are all incarcerated in our own ways.
Read this if
You want to learn more about, and reflect upon, human behaviour.
You have an interest in stories of hope over fear, and perseverance over surrender.
Find The Gift here