There is a popular belief among all of us that I think is pure evil—and I don’t use that word lightly. It is a contemptible, destructive philosophy that crushes hope and it freezes its followers in a lake of stagnation. Instead of ennobling and strengthening those who embrace it, this belief drags men and women down. It encourages isolation, fosters fear, and perpetuates resentment. It robs men and women of their strength and will to fight; it makes them give in and fall down instead of hold true and stand up. In short, this philosophy is anything but liberating—it is damning. Like a pernicious plague, this belief—if embraced—can stunt our growth and limit our life.
I can’t change. I am a victim of my circumstances.
Yet despite all of its side effects, we nevertheless cling to this belief to one degree or another. In order to make it go down easier we sugarcoat it with pleasing justifications and reassure ourselves that this belief will actually soothe our pains. And for a time, it does. Like the addict who self-medicates with drugs, or the alcoholic who escapes life through drink, we run to victimhood to make ourselves feel better. The belief that we’re not responsible for our actions gives us a buzz, or a temporary relief, before dropping us down lower than before. This belief is like a chocolate-covered razor blade—it tastes sweet, but after you swallow it, the chocolate will wear off and the razor will be exposed. You see, victimhood is vicious; it takes and tortures its prisoners. Unaware that the belief is the thing that is hurting us and halting us, we will continue to blame anything and everything around us—even our own bodies—but certainly not ourselves.
Busy with blame, we will invariably overlook this important truth:
We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can always control how we react.
We are not victims of our circumstances. We are always free to choose—to act and not be acted upon. The sooner we embrace this belief and accept our responsibility, the sooner we will triumph over our circumstances and become a victor instead of a victim.
Please point me to anyone in history—anyone who has changed the world for the better—who embraced the belief that they were a victim. The men and women we revere are the individuals who refuse to be a victim of their circumstances; they take responsibility for how they react to the things that are given to them. By taking responsibility for life, these individuals are able to transcend their circumstances in a most beautiful (and oftentimes ironic) way.
Winston Churchill, the venerable Prime Minister who led Great Britain to victory in World War II, has become an icon of oration. His words inspired millions in the fight against Nazi Germany. In his first speech to the House of Commons he said: “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
Yet for all of his success in speaking, as a boy Churchill struggled with a speech impediment. Had he believed himself a victim of his circumstance, we may never have seen “victory in spite of all terror.”
Helen Keller was both deaf and blind, yet went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, become a political activist, a lecturer, and a prolific author. After accomplishing what many would deem ‘impossible’ Helen Keller would later write this: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”
Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid revolutionary who was imprisoned for 27 years. While in prison, he memorized the poem “Invictus,” which reads, in part: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Instead of blaming his circumstances, Nelson Mandela accepted responsibility for his fate and emerged from prison a different kind of revolutionary—one whose attitude of forgiveness would change the world.
Indeed, the world is filled to bursting with individuals who have refused to be the victim of their circumstances and have chosen instead to be the victor of their own story. I know women who were abused as children but refuse to remain the victims of their abusers. Instead, they offer hope, help and guidance to others in similar situations, and actively work to prevent the abuse of other children. I know a man who, when he was a child, was beaten by his father and eventually placed in foster care. He has refused to remain a victim of his father’s negligence and abuse and has chosen instead to become a loving husband and a caring father. I know a girl who was born with cerebral palsy, but has gone on to chase her dreams and earn a degree.
On a personal level, I suffer from chronic depression which can be very debilitating and very heart-wrenching. Depression is something that runs in my family and it would be easy (and acceptable) for me to use that factor as an excuse. And for many years, I did use that as an excuse. Those were the hardest and most difficult times of my life.
And of course they were. Because I was allowing myself to be a victim of my depression. I had voluntarily surrendered all of my power to this idea that I was a victim. I believed I was trapped. Why wouldn’t I be miserable?
But I can attest to a marvelous, inexplicable power that has come to me whenever I accept the full responsibility for my depression. Whenever I truly believe that “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,” then I’m given the strength to face my demons. Author Robert Louis Stevenson once said: “You cannot run away from a weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?”
It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been a one-time event, but taking ownership of my life has been worth the fight.
I called the philosophy of victimhood the most damning philosophy of all time—I called it evil. I stand by that. In Dante’s Inferno, the Devil is found at the lowest level of Hell surrounded, not by fire, but by a lake of ice. This lake is kept frozen by the beating of Satan’s wings.
For Dante, Satan’s punishment symbolizes several things: 1) the isolation of Hell, 2) the fact that there is no progression in Hell, and 3) that the isolation and stagnation of Hell is of our own making. By blaming everyone else (and most especially by blaming God), Satan has sunk to the lowest levels of isolation. There, by the beating of his own wings, the Fallen Angel remains, crushed by the weight of his own victims, and mired in a frozen lake of victimhood.
Now, we are not like the Fallen Angel of Dante’s Inferno. But let me appeal to the “better angels” of your nature. If you feel like life is Hell, stop beating your wings (or fists) at the world. We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can always control how we react. Abandon the idea that you will forever be the victim of the things that have happened to you. Choose to be a victor.
Embrace that belief and I promise you that you will feel the weight of Hell drop from your shoulders. Because we are always free to choose.
And that is the most liberating belief of all time.