Rabbi Akiva made this point when he and a group of colleagues visited their revered teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, who was gravely ill. When all the other students heaped abundant praise on Rabbi Eliezer, he turned a deaf ear to them. Only Rabbi Akiva's remark elicited a response. "Let me hear what my son Akiva has to say," he said.
When we have our health and full capacities, we can do countless things and make all kinds of choices. This personal freedom gives life so much of its meaning. But if we are gravely ill and bedridden, and disease has drained all of our energies, we can do virtually nothing and are no longer free to make any choices. This loss of personal freedom can be felt as a loss of our very humanity.
Rabbi Eliezer, in his state of severe illness, felt that his loss of freedom had cost him his human identity. His students' praises were empty to him, for even a glorious past could not give him the freedom of choice so vital to his being.
Rabbi Akiva pointed out that he still had one choice: a choice of attitude. Although all other choices had been taken from him, Rabbi Eliezer could still choose to either accept his suffering with serenity, or swallow it with bitterness. Rabbi Akiva had restored his freedom to him.