04/12/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Real Life Lessons From Real Life DoGooders: You, Not Your Circumstances, Hold the Power

While perusing some news recently on Huffington Post, I ran across a captivating story about a 108-year-old Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz Sommer. Born in Prague to an affluent family in 1903, she grew up consumed by the piano. After studying at the Prague German Conservatory of Music, Alice became an acclaimed pianist by 39 years old and gave concerts regularly until the Germans occupied her city during WWII.

Married with a young son, Alice's entire family was sent to a concentration camp. Her beloved parents were immediately killed and over the course of the war, she and her son were the only members of her family to survive the camps. The only reason she and her son were saved was because her captors saw her talents as an opportunity for use in a Nazi propaganda video.

It is amazing that she and her son survived the concentration camps, and it is unbelievable that her incredible spirit wasn't broken in the process. She recounted her story in the 2004 bestseller, A Garden of Eden in Hell. Choosing to focus on the good despite the horrifying circumstances, she reveled in gratitude that she was able to be with her son. Her 5-year-old, Rafi, was still too innocent to understand the gravity of the situation and would ask: "'Why can't I eat something?' or 'What are Jews, Mother?'" she recalled. She remained thankful, even in the camps, because she could continue to provide love and care to her son. She held on to this gratitude daily, which enabled her to survive and hold onto hope in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Other survivors of Theresienstadt recall in the video, which was produced by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, how Alice gave concerts at the camp and became a lifeline. "I remember Alice sitting on stage," one survivor in the video remembers, "I was in the third row and watched from her right profile. I was captivated and it was magic to hear this music in that kind of surrounding until it was over and you come back to earth and see where you are. It was moral support, not entertainment... it had a much bigger value."

I thought it so inspiring how Alice found beauty in the midst of evil and continued to serve other prisoners with her gift of music. After she was liberated in 1945, she moved to Israel and became a music teacher. She later immigrated to North London in 1986. Her experience never left her bitter, like it would for so many; she remained an eternal optimist. Alice didn't become a victim to her circumstance. The Nazis might have taken her family, but they couldn't take her love of life and music.

Alice says that her mother taught her early that complaining doesn't change anything. She chooses "to look at the good even though she knows about the bad" and embraces life's joys. Shockingly, she looks back at her experience in the concentration camp and is thankful for it. Because of the tragedy, she explains that she has lived a much richer life with perspective and feels blessed to enjoy the simple joys in her life.

Reflecting on Alice's outlook, I am reminded of Katie Meyler, who we chronicled at in our DoGooder Spotlight. Though not as extreme, the founder of the nonprofit, More than Me, also had a troubled upbringing with a family life tempered with drug, alcohol and emotional abuse. At six years old, her young parents divorced, leaving Meyler's mother a single parent to three young daughters. Drinking to escape her problems, Meyler's mother became an absent parent and left her daughters feeling isolated. Katie watched helplessly as her sister struggled with crack addiction.

As a high school freshman, Meyler chose to take control of her life and escaped the family chaos through a local church. On a mission trip to Haiti with the church at 17 years old, she changed the trajectory of her life forever by developing a new perspective. She saw how some suffered far worse than her and she found purpose in serving them.

"I always had free school, running water and a roof over my head," says Meyler. "I realized I was never poor when I saw these people without shoes, sleeping under cars to keep warm." Armed with a new mission, Meyler graduated from high school with high honors and accepted a scholarship to attend college, becoming the first in her family to pursue a degree. After college, she went into the field to serve others and eventually started More than Me, a nonprofit that sends young Liberian girls to school.

Both Alice and Katie teach us the valuable real life lesson that you, not your circumstances, hold the power in your life. They both experienced tragedy, but chose not to fall victim to it. Alice couldn't help that she was born Jewish and lived in a time when she would be targeted in a mass genocide. Katie couldn't control the fact that her father left or that her mother and sister battled addiction. The one thing they could control is how they reacted to their circumstances. They held that power.

It would have been easy for Alice to focus on her lost family members, but instead she concentrated on her living son and her beloved music, which kept them both alive. Kate could have allowed her loneliness to rob her of happiness and spiral into addiction like her sister, but chose a different route to help others.

It is such a valuable lesson to us all, especially today, with so many hurting more than ever. The Great Recession has crushed so many dreams and opportunities for people. Many have lost superficial things they thought brought them joy like a house, a job or a social status. Often in these times, depression and pessimism can grow to fulfill that void. It is easy to become addicted to your sob story, whatever it may be, but Alice and Katie understand everyone has hardships. It may not be as extreme as a concentration camp, but pain is pain. The lesson they show us is their circumstances, while painful, didn't define them. They understood that their hardship was just a temporary chapter to their life's story, which gave them the skills and power to define and navigate towards joy for the rest of their lives.

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