“The way that you wander / is the way that you choose. / The day that you tarry / is the day that you lose.” –The Ballad of Jeremiah Johnson, written by John Rubinstein & Tim McIntire for Sidney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972).
Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust, even though he was in four Nazi death camps including Auschwitz from 1942-45, but his parents and other members of his family died. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in concentration camps or were sent to gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished: He found himself stripped to a naked existence.
During those years he spent his time watching everyone around him suffering and dying. The prisoners were fed small amounts of bread and watery soup therefore without proper nourishment, their bodies started to devour themselves. How could be -every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination- how could be a person find life worth preserving? One of the ways he found the strength to fight to stay alive and not lose hope was to think of his wife.
“Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look then was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.[…] Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Frankl’s concentration camp experiences profoundly influenced his life’s work after the World War II, leading to his development of Logotherapy; a new clinical approach to helping patients who are experiencing inescapable suffering to cope better by looking at ways in which they can find meaning in their lives. However, he is best known for his indispensable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning; a keenly observed account of his experiences in the Nazi death camps. Originally intended for limited private circulation, the slim book has since been translated into 24 languages. For him, meaning, came from three possible sources; purposeful work, love and courage in the face of difficulty.
“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl points out that, in modern society, many confuse sex with love. Without love, he says, sex is nothing more than masturbation, and the other is nothing more than a tool to be used, a means to an end. Sex can only be fully enjoyed as the physical expression of love. So, love, he said, “is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”
Frankl clearly saw that it was those who had nothing to live for who died quickest in the concentration camps. He saw that people who had hopes of being reunited with loved ones, or who had projects they felt a need to complete, or who had great faith, tended to have better chances than those who had lost all hope.
“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life anymore.” What sort of answer can one give to that?”
Again, it was his experiences in the death camps that led Frankl’s form his theories drawing on the fact that some prisoners could still find purpose in their lives despite the hellish conditions. Through his book he explains that really you have NO problem that YOU cannot overcome: To never give up and cope with death. During his captivity he organized a unit to help camp newcomers to overcome shock and grief and even later he set up a suicide watch.
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He, who knows the WHY for his existence, will be able to bear almost any HOW.”
It is difficult to argue with someone who has been through what Frankl has been through, and seen what he has seen. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s chronicles led the young prisoner with the number 119,104 to realize the significance of meaningfulness in life; how deep cuts bled and how blurred meaning of life went for the prisoners suffering from such a violence for which the word itself inhibits. But some people still have strong reservations to his point of views arguing that he attempts to re-insert religion into psychology and criticizing that he -calling himself an existentialist- elevated Kierkegaard to the honorary position of founder of existentialism -word which Kierkegaard had never heard-, and also for using medication with Logotherapy in order to deal with the person’s psychological and emotional reaction to the illness.
There are authors that attack the Austrian psychiatrist arguing that after looking at the records, Frankl was only in Auschwitz for at most three days before deported to other concentration camps and his account in his famous testimony book should be taking with some scepticism. But those people should know that in those camps where he was sent during three years the treatment would have included some common inhuman behavior, or not? Also, other authors have noted how Frankl was at an advantage in the camps, because by having psychological training he could retreat into his mind and objectify and “study” the horror around him thus insulating himself in some sense from the personal and emotional trauma. But they should not forget that thanks to his knowledge he helped prisoners psychologically to overcome their possible imminent death and grief life in the camps.
I do not believe that those criticisms or any other invalidate Frankl’s theories. He does a great job of describing his story for the common person to understand the atrocities of the Holocaust. If you really need the Steven Covey’s landmark book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as much as listening Master Shifu spiritual advices from Kung Fu Panda, definitely Frankl’s book may not be for you due its “complexity”. Man’s Search for Meaning, is a great accomplishment because of the intensity of the events; he described how the prisoners were reduced to nothing but a number, and found next to nothing to release themselves from the emptiness. What little they could do, was to keep their sense of humor, and point out the natural beauty of the world, such as a sunset, or just observe how a little beautiful bird perches on a wire metal.
He quotes a lesson on happiness taken from the most disgusting crime against humanity in living memory, and probably in all memory:
“The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.” Also, he noted about the camps: “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”
Forget how we look, our religion, our background or our culture, we all have brilliance inside and the short journey of life (time pass too quickly) is to awaken that and let it shine. From Frankl’s experience you can learn that we are all here to activate something within us to contribute to this world; you are what you choose and what you choose is what you live; you do not fail when you fall you fail when you refuse to stand once more, therefore, if there is life there is hope.