Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Being a victim or choosing to act with hope and gratitude
“Never define yourself as a victim. You cannot change your past but you can change your future. There is always a choice, and by exercising the strength to choose, we can rise above fate.”
So wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain. In his book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Sacks tells of the world’s oldest man who in 2017 died just a month before his 114th birthday. Yisrael Kristal was a Holocaust survivor who did not have an easy life. After spending four years in a Polish ghetto and then taken to Auschwitz, where his wife was killed and two of his children died, he was finally liberated but near starvation weighing only 82 pounds. While clearly a victim of terrible acts of cruelty, he refused to consider himself a victim but looked to the future.
Sacks writes of his own experience, “Looking back, I see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I want eventually to be. Both are legitimate ways of thinking, but one leads to resentment, bitterness, rage and a desire for revenge. The other leads to challenge, courage, strength of will and self-control.” He calls this “the triumph of choice over fate.”
Another component of living for the future is the attitude of gratitude. The late Senator John McCain could have easily taken on victimhood following his more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. As a Navy pilot, he was shot down while on his 23rd bombing mission over Hanoi, was badly injured and taken prisoner. He was tortured and spent two years in solitary confinement. He was given the opportunity to be released early but refused because the other prisoners who had been there longer were not given freedom.
Following his eventual release and major medical procedures and operations, he continued his military service for many years until finally retiring with a disability pension. He chose not, as he put it, to be a “professional POW” but began to build his second career, not in military service but in public service as an elected member of Congress. Following two terms in the House of Representatives, he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served into his sixth term before his death in 2018.
McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain tumor, and previously survived three melanoma cancers. But once again he did not consider himself a victim but entered radiation and chemotherapy to treat the disease. In an interview, he said he faced the future with gratitude for having “had a great life.” In that same interview, he mentioned gratitude at least five times. Repeatedly, McCain made the choice not to be a victim but to live for the future. He chose to see his life with an attitude of gratitude.
Abdu’l-Baha, son of and successor to the founder of the Baha’i faith, tells the story of Buddha speaking to his disciples as he was planning to send them out to teach. He wanted to be sure that they were prepared for the hardship ahead. He asked them:
“When you go to the East and to the West and the people shut their doors to you and refuse to speak to you, what will you do?”— The disciples answered: “We shall be very thankful that they do us no harm.” — “Then if they do you harm and mock, what will you do?” — “We shall be very thankful that they do not give us worse treatment.” — “If they throw you into prison?” — “We shall still be grateful that they do not kill us.”
“What if they were to kill you?” the Master asked for the last time. “Still,” answered the disciples, “we will be thankful, for they cause us to be martyrs. What more glorious fate is there than this, to die for the glory of God?” The Buddha then responded and said, “Well done!”
We are not all called to become martyrs, but in whatever life brings we have the choice to be thankful or to become a victim. Science has recently affirmed what our religious traditions have taught, that gratitude and thankfulness can bring life fulfillment and meaning in all that we do and experience.
As a Hindu guru once said, "Some people complain because God put thorns on roses. Others praise Him for putting roses among thorns."
The temptation to blame events or actions of the past is there for each of us. But that is precisely what cannot be changed. We can choose instead to take action to help create a future that has meaning. It is our choice: being a victim or choosing to act with hope, faith, and gratitude.