How Would Nelson Mandela And Viktor Frankl Cope With Covid-19?

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is widely regarded as one of the most influential books of our time. He was also a Holocaust survivor, where he was subjected to horrific atrocities including torture, starvation, and the expectancy of hourly extermination. During this time, he lost everything, including his entire family who perished in the camps.

Nelson Mandela suffered a similar fate. Wrongly imprisoned in 1962, he was sent to Robben Island, a former leper colony, where the warder’s first words were: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.” Mandela spent most of his 27-year prison sentence here, where he was made to work under torturous conditions. His only refuge, a cell measuring 8 x 7 feet, contained nothing but a bucket and a straw bed.

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Frankl used similar tactics to survive the abject misery of four concentration camps. Rather than reacting to his external environment, he continued to exercise the most important freedom of all, the freedom to control his own his inner-life, as he alone decided how he responded to the appalling conditions.

‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’ — Viktor Frankl

Where Suffering Lies

Covid-19 is a challenge for everyone, much of which we have no control over. This might sound disheartening, but realizing this is not a weakness, it’s a source of strength.

Why? Because we always have a choice over how we respond to challenging events, even extremely difficult ones. What’s more, it is not the challenge itself, but our reaction to it that causes most of our suffering.

The first and second darts metaphor explains this best:

  • ‘First darts’ are inescapable pains that life throws at us. It might be emotional pain, like a tough breakup, a lost opportunity, or the death of a loved one. It might even be physical pain, like stubbing your toe off the table. These unavoidable pains are the essence of human existence, and if you live and love, some of these will fall on your doorstep.
  • In reality, however, most of our suffering is not caused by first darts. It is caused by how we respond to them. ‘Second darts’ are the darts we throw at ourselves. These are our reactions to first darts, and this is where most of our suffering lies.

Consider our current predicament. Some weird virus creeps up on us from across the water. This is the first dart. Unfortunately for us, it’s a big fat juicy dart, and it throws the whole world into a spin.

Second darts — fear and anxiety — soon follow, triggering more second darts. Terrified that we’ll run out of essential supplies, people start panic-buying all across the globe.

The initial panic settles down after a day or two, but the second darts are relentless. Some people are angry, looking for someone to blame. Others are depressed, and can’t see a way forward. Fear and anxiety, however, are everpresent. These second darts are here for a while.

In the past few days, many people have been told to self-isolate. Relationships will be tested to their very limits, even the strongest ones, and that’s before bringing children into the mix. This is where second darts can get ugly. With tempers frayed and anxiety levels high, it’s easy to react without thinking.

Consider this scenario: Your partner is complaining that you’re not pulling your weight — first dart. You disagree, so the second dart — anger or retaliation — soon follows. You quickly realise that you stepped over the line, way over the line. You now feel guilty over your anger and sad about your guilt — more second darts. You’d like to take it back, but it’s too late — the damage is done.

This is the essence of suffering — secondary reactions to painful events, which are often more destructive than the original experience.

Increasing The Space

If secondary reactions are the essence of suffering, how can we let them go, or at least limit these second dart reactions?

Mandela and Frankl appear to hold the key to this timeless problem. How did they remain sane throughout their own personal nightmares, never mind doing so with a sense of calm and dignity?

Both of these remarkable individuals refused to let external circumstances control their actions. Instead, they focused on what they could control, their own inner-world.

So how did they do this, and more to the point, how would they cope with the current crisis?

Mandela and Frankl were big proponents of mindful self-awareness, and for me, Frankl named the fruits of this practice in one of his most famous lines:

‘Between stimulus and response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’

By practising mindful self-awareness, especially self-observation, they increased the space between stimulus and response. So instead of mindlessly reacting to challenging events, they were able to respond in a rational and dignified manner.

This is not to say you should bury your feelings — I’m sure Mandela and Frankl both felt theirs — but it allows you to sit with first dart pain in mindful awareness. This might sound contradictory, but research shows that fully feeling your pain diminishes its power.

Lastly, by practising present moment awareness, you’ll stop obsessing about painful experiences. First darts open wounds, but second darts keep them open. So stop picking the scab, and let it heal. Thinking about what you could have or should have done won’t change a thing.

The Takeaway

Covid-19 is the greatest challenge of our times, much of which we have no control over. People will die. Many more will get sick. And even when it’s all over, our challenges will have only just begun.

It’s going to be painful. This much we know for certain. But if you focus on what you can control, you can limit those second darts. That’s what Mandela and Frankl would do, and if you take their lead, you don’t have to suffer.

What would you do if you had a second chance at life?

Having escaped from the depths of heroin addiction (see before-after addictions pics here), I decided to write a book about it. ‘Bonus Time: A true story of surviving the worst and discovering the magic of every moment.’

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