How do we forgive the unforgivable? How do we move past unimaginable trauma? How do we heal after being hurt over and again?
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel wrote: “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” And psychotherapist Viktor Frankl wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Wiesel and Frankl were both Holocaust survivors who made it their mission to bring peace and healing to the world. They both went through extreme suffering — suffering that you and I can hardly imagine.
Suffering is something that affects all of us in different ways. Maybe you’ve lost someone dear to your heart to cancer. Or perhaps you’ve gone through extreme adversity, possibly even trauma, addiction, or an abusive relationship. Whatever your story is, suffering is probably a part of it.
When we go through suffering, we are faced with a choice. Do we let that experience harden us? Do we live in the past? Or do we use it to grow and better ourselves?
“I don’t have time to hate, because if I would hate, I would still be a hostage or a prisoner of the past.” – Dr. Edith Eger
My guest today is committed to bringing peace to the world, and she has used her story of suffering to impact people’s lives for the better. Edith Eger was 16 years old when her family was uprooted from their home in Hungary and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. There, Edie lost her parents and almost her life, but as she says today, she never lost hope, even in her darkest moments.
In 1944, Edith Eger was just a teenager when she experienced one of the worst evils the human race has ever known. As a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz, the heinous death camp. Her parents were sent to the gas chambers, but Edie’s bravery kept her sister and her alive. Toward the end of the war, Edie and other prisoners were moved to Austria.
On May 4, 1945, a young American soldier noticed her hand moving slightly among a number of dead bodies. He quickly summoned medical help and brought her back from the brink of death.
After the war, Edie moved to Czechoslovakia where she met the man she would marry. In 1949 they moved to the United States. In 1969 she received her degree in Psychology from the University of Texas, El Paso. She then pursued her doctoral internship at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Today, Dr. Edie is a prolific author and a member of several professional associations. She has a clinical practice in La Jolla, California, and she holds a faculty appointment at the University of California, San Diego. She has appeared on numerous television programs, including CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Show, and she was the primary subject of a holocaust documentary that appeared on Dutch National Television. Dr. Edie is frequently invited to speaking engagements throughout the United States and abroad.
Now 92-years-old, Dr. Edie is a respected clinical psychologist in San Diego, and the author of the books, The Choice and now The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life. Her latest work weaves profound clinical and philosophical insights with gripping stories of survival and healing.
There are not very many Holocaust survivors remaining, and while this conversation was incredibly difficult at times, it is so incredibly powerful. Dr. Edie is a true inspiration, and we could all use her advice on coming to terms with trauma, freeing your mind from the shackles of your past, and choosing to live a loving, positive life.
Dr. Edie doesn’t call herself a victim. She calls herself a survivor, and the difference between the two is huge. When you’re a victim, you’re still under the control of your oppressor. Even if that person or event has moved on, you haven’t — you’re still stuck in the past. On the other hand, survivors acknowledge their past trauma and let those experiences transform them for the better. Dr. Edie is a survivor, and not only that, but she views all that pain as a gift.
“[When] anything stressful comes to [you], you have two automatic responses. You either fight or flee, but none of those [worked] in Auschwitz. I call Auschwitz a classroom, and [in it] I discovered my inner resources. … I was able to … [look] at the guards … [as if[ they were brainwashed. … Plato [tells] you that the power of suggestion means that you think of a lie —it has to be a big one — and then you repeat it until [you] believe it. And I think this is very important for people to question authority and not just to fight or flee, but learn how to flow in a situation and discover their inner resources. That is the gift to turn hatred into pity. … [It was how I looked] at the guards and [knew] that I could actually pray for them.” – Dr. Edith Eger
I thought this was so powerful. In Auschwitz, if you fought back, you would be immediately killed. If you tried to flee, you’d also be killed. Those two options weren’t possible, and so Dr. Edie began to train her mind — the one thing that no one could take away.
“My mom told me in the car … she had me, and she said, ‘We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s waiting for us. Just remember: No one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.’ And that’s exactly what happened. Everything was taken away from me, [but] I still had my mind and my sister.” – Dr. Edith Eger
The things Dr. Edie experienced during the Holocaust are beyond a scope that you and I could possibly fathom. Every day in Auschwitz, she would work on her mindset, and tell herself, “If I survive today, I’ll be liberated tomorrow.” That phrase kept her going each day until finally, she was liberated when she was 17 years old.
After liberation, Dr. Edie struggled with the feeling that she had no meaning in life. She went through an existential crisis and was even suicidal. She knew her parents were not coming home. Her boyfriend from before she went to Auschwitz was shot a day before liberation. Even though she was no longer in the camp, her mind now found itself in a prison.
“Reality hit me, and I was very suicidal after I was liberated. … God told me, ‘If you’re going to die, you’re not going to be able to experience the life that is ahead of you. And so, you’ve got to be for something.’ And that’s when I began to really commit myself to be for life and for the survivors and for becoming a doctor now and being a member of the healing arts profession.” – Dr. Edith Eger
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to put yourself back together at the age of 17 after experiencing Auschwitz. Dr. Edie had undergone sexual abuse, physical abuse, and mental torment, among many other things. She had so many reasons to give up — death was inviting. It was a way out. But she knew that she still had a purpose to fulfill — to help others heal from trauma and live happy, fulfilling lives.
“I hope that people are listening and that they can also find time to discover that even though many, many things didn’t happen their way and they could have killed themselves because it’s easier to die than to live … and yet [they] didn’t. So I hope you can congratulate yourself. [Even though] we go through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t camp there.” – Dr. Edith Eger
When times are hard, know that they won’t always be that way. Pain isn’t a resting place, in fact, it’s what can propel you towards greatness.
If you’ve been following The School of Greatness for a while now, you know that I experienced sexual abuse when I was five years old by a man that I didn’t know. And for 25 years, I suppressed the emotions of that trauma and didn’t tell anyone my story. I was so ashamed that if anyone knew this about me, no one would love me or accept me as a human being. When I finally shared my story, a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I finally saw what it meant to be a survivor and not a victim.
I asked Dr. Edie how long it was until she could embrace the trauma she had experienced, and she told me an inspirational story about working with two paraplegics, both of them Vietnam War veterans.
“One of them was in a fetal position of seeking revenge and anger, cursing [his] country and God. And the other one said to me, ‘You know, doc, I am sitting in a wheelchair, and I’m so grateful that my God gave me a second chance in life.’… And I’m wearing a white coat, and it says ‘Dr. Eger, Department of Psychiatry,’ and I feel like the biggest imposter because I kept my secret for at least 20 years. [I] never told anyone I was in Auschwitz.’ – Dr. Edith Eger
While Dr. Edie had found her purpose in helping others heal from trauma, she herself hadn’t fully healed. She realized she couldn’t fully help her patients if she hadn’t healed herself. That’s when she decided she was going to return to Auschwitz.
I asked Dr. Edie what advice she had for anyone who’s experienced trauma, and she broke the healing process into a three-step process:
“I think the work that I do has to do with three things — grieving, feeling, and healing. You cannot heal what you don’t feel. Don’t medicate grief — ever. It’s not clinical depression. … It’s a natural reaction to our loss. … Grieving has to do with acknowledging that you expected one thing, and you got another. … Crying is healing because what comes out of your body doesn’t make you ill; what stays in there does.” – Dr. Edith Eger
Edie acknowledged that healing is a lifelong process, but don’t let this discourage you. As you heal from something traumatic, let your experiences shape you for the better, and allow yourself to grieve so that you can move forward with purpose.
In her new book, The Gift, Edith talks about 12 imprisoning beliefs that many people in the world are facing. We didn’t have time to get into all 12, but I asked Edie if she had a couple of pieces of wisdom from her book that she could share with us. One of those pieces was about forgiveness:
“There is no forgiveness without rage. You got to go through that rage and see whether you are ready to forgive because it’s not up to me to forgive you. It’s up to me to be actually able to be for myself. And for myself [means that I] need to be free, [and so] I give myself a gift. I don’t have any godly powers to forgive you or anyone else, but I do what’s humanly possible and then hand it over.” – Dr. Edith Eger
That is so powerful. I’m sure we all have been hurt by people in the past, who have done some severe damage, but rather than suppressing the rage, we need to embrace it. We need to feel the full extent of it until we can finally let it go. And when we do choose to let it go, we are giving ourselves the gift of freedom.
In her book, Edie gives some tools on how you can begin to forgive, one of which is letter writing. You write two letters — the first is the rage letter, and the second is a love letter:
“The first letter is [full of[ all the rage that you have. … Scream it out. … Just get it all out because once it is, you’re going to feel better. That’s why the opposite of depression is expression. … Then you write a love letter [about] what you are for rather than what you are against.” – Dr. Edith Eger
When we hold on to resentment, Dr. Edie says we are actually holding on to self-hate. It’s okay to be angry, and it’s important to let that out, but if it’s all we feel, we will begin to hate ourselves. When we stop living in the past and give ourselves the gift of forgiveness, the freedom that we will feel is truly incredible.
I can honestly say that this is one of the most impactful interviews I’ve ever had on The School of Greatness. Dr. Edie is one of the most inspiring people that I have ever met, and her advice about healing from trauma, finding your purpose, and learning to forgive is life-changing.
Her definition of greatness is something you’re going to want to live by:
“Just be you — [a] one of a kind, unique, authentic person that never ever was in a million years before or after you. That’s really something to wow about.” – Dr. Edith Eger
Dr. Edie is definitely one of those people, and her mission is to show everyone that no matter what you’ve gone through, healing is possible and that you matter. If you want to learn more from Dr. Edie, definitely check out her two fantastic books, The Gift and The Choice. You can also find more resources on her website, as well as any information on upcoming virtual events!
If this episode impacted you, Dr. Edie and I would love to hear from you. Tag Dr. Edie, @dr.editheger, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with a screenshot of the episode and your greatest takeaways. And if you know someone who could benefit from hearing this message, don’t hesitate to share it with them.
Remember: You don’t have to live in the past, and you don’t have to suppress your emotions either. When you’re ready, share your story, and choose the path towards healing.
Join me on Episode 1,010 to learn about healing, forgiveness, and finding freedom with Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger!