The One Thing Nobody Can Take From You (And What To Do With It)

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”

–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

“You can’t get everything you want. Just deal with it.”

I’m sitting with my two youngest kids on a log, in the North Woods of Wisconsin, waiting for Oldest Son to emerge from his two-week residential summer camp. Younger Son is getting nothing he wants—no air conditioning, no reprieve from the bugs, no LED screen to stare at, no sugar, no nothing—and I’m watching him gather his little internal army for battle.

“Some things you can’t change, buddy. It is what it is. Just accept it.”

I’m dispensing life lessons like crummy candy at a hot parade.

Now he’s poking Youngest Daughter, half-heartedly tripping her, his chin so far out it might tip him over, daring me to go to war with him. I decide it’s time to start disciplining him because even though he’s just being a kid—just testing out selfishness, just trying out entitlement—he needs to learn a lesson:

Refusing to accept the things we cannot change has consequences.

For instance, when we refuse to embrace our basic personality, we practice loathing ourselves instead of loving ourselves. When we try to make kids into what we want them to be—or tell them they can be anything they want to be—we encourage them to waste a lifetime conforming or dreaming, rather than becoming who they are here to be. When we refuse to accept our physical limitations, we injure our bodies. When we try to fix an abusive relationship instead of trying to flee it, we injure our hearts. When we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, we end our days wishing for a do-over.

We’re all standing in lines we can’t shorten and living lives we can’t, for the most part, lengthen. We have a finite amount of energy and not much time, and a lot of both can get wasted trying to move immovable objects.

Youngest Son is still grumbling when we greet Oldest Son, who has survived camp with a few scrapes and bruises and some mysterious paint in his ears, and we head to the nearest town, where my wife has booked our hotel for the night. We round a curve and the hotel appears before us.

You can barely see it behind the weeds.

The lobby isn’t much better—the air conditioning isn’t working, the WiFi is broken, the pool looks like a grimy bathtub, and the counter features multiple handwritten warnings about leaving your hockey sticks in the car. In the room, the air conditioner blows mildew. I walk back out, grab my phone and start making calls.

There’s not a single vacancy in town.

I can’t get everything I want. This particular first-world problem I cannot change. I have to accept it.

Yet, some part of me—probably my ego—rises up and resists this reality. I consider calling my wife and raging at her for her choice of hotel. Instead, I take it out on my kids. I get surly. Snap at them. It’s an adult version of poking and tripping the people I love.

Turns out, my son wasn’t acting like a kid; he was acting like a human.

Thankfully, another part of me—probably my soul—is watching the rest of me and it sees my entitlement and the mess I’m making of the situation and, in that moment of awareness, I know I have a choice to make.

It’s not a choice about where we sleep.

It’s a choice about how to live out my lack of choice about where we sleep.

Ultimately, I decide I can find a little freedom within it. And it turns out, there are some real benefits to staying in a hotel that’s falling apart: usually, I prohibit the kids from jumping on the beds for fear of damaging something in the room. Not in this one. Everything’s broken already.

Peals of laughter resound from bouncing kids.

And it turns out, you can have a lot of fun in a bathtub masquerading as a pool. In fact, one seven-year-old can meet another seven-year-old, and two total strangers can have the time of their lives doing “synchronized jumping” for their applauding parents.

And it turns out, the tiny pool doesn’t go deeper than three feet, so it’s the first pool my five-year-old daughter has felt like “a big kid” in. She simply glows with the status of it.

And it turns out, though the Styrofoam cups in the lobby are so flimsy they disintegrate when you try to push a lid onto them—spraying orange juice all over you and the not-quite-so-continental breakfast bar—the kids absolutely delight in seeing dad spill something at the table, too.

It turns out, we left the hotel happy.

Not because we were determined to change our situation, but because we found the freedom to accept it.

The immovable objects in our lives are trying to move us. Maybe toward peace. Probably toward strength and courage and resilience. And certainly toward freedom.

If we choose to let them.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.