Today I came across this video of Alice Herz Sommer and I think it is one of the most inspiring videos I have ever watched. Alice was born in Prague in 1903 and she is a Holocaust survivor hence the reference in her book title A Garden of Eden in Hell which she wrote when she was 104 years old.
Here are some lessons from this most amazing, 108 year old woman:
The benefits of optimism are many and I wrote about them here. She says that her twin sister was a pessimist, so it doesn’t always follow that people with the same chromosomes and upbringing will necessarily develop the same type of character.
Whether it is optimism or not that has kept her alive, it is remarkable that she is still alive 2 1/2 decades after being diagnosed with cancer.
Lessons from her Mum
Alice says she learned two important lessons from her Mum:
a) Learn, learn, learn -she said that she tries to put something new in her mind every day and, by that, she is referring to new knowledge; learning it by rote. It is a very interesting comment. As I teach in my workshops, keeping your brain active keeps the Devil at bay (the Devil’s name is Alzheimer) and Alice, at 108 years old is living proof.
b) Be thankful for everything – if this lady were a bitter and twisted individual, we would all understand. But she isn’t. Far from it, she was happy and grateful all the way through her life. She does not condemn her captors and she regrets nothing in life. Her comments remind me of Edith Piaf’s song Je Ne Regrette Rien in which the same sentiment appears.
“Think backwards,” she says, think, “this was beautiful.” I have never heard anyone say anything like that. Often in self improvement, we are encouraged to see the future as a part of the present – as with affirmations, for example. But here we have the suggestion of seeing the present as the past. There is definitely something in those words that warrant a little introspection. Did that attitude help her survive?
I remember once reading the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl; also a holocaust survivor. In it, he says that he noticed many people died in those WWII concentration camps almost ahead of their time when it looked as if they still had enough physical strength to survive. He also noticed that some people who looked as if they would not last the day, nevertheless continued to battle on – and actually did survive.
Frankl was a doctor and he used the time he spent imprisoned to form his theories about why some people lived and others died in those exceptionally harsh conditions. His conclusion was that those who lived had a reason to live – whatever it was – and that’s what got them through it.
Perhaps what kept Alice going was her attitude, her way of seeing the present as the past. Maybe it enabled her to understand, in the bleakest moments, that the present would eventually all pass. Perhaps that’s what helped her to survive it.
So, I believe there is much to learn from Alice and also from Victor Frankl:
1. Have a Reason to Live
2. Learn from the Experience
3. Focus on the Good
4. Be an Optimist
5. Learn, learn, learn
6. Smiling Helps a Lot
7. Everything is a Present
8. Think Backwards
In closing, I also love Tony Robbins‘ comment about life. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be born, get a gold watch, go to work and then spend the rest of your life playing with your friends.
You know, apart from getting the gold watch, perhaps you could do that.