“Ultimately, a man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
This quote was my first introduction to Viktor Frankl in Stephen Covey’s famous book “The Seven Habits of highly effective people”. It was amazing to read about a person who could emerge a better man from the hopelessness of the Nazi Concentration Camp. In the midst of starvation and brutality he could conceptualize a new school of psychotherapy called Logotherapy and went on to cure many people. Logotherapy works on the premise that many of our mental and even physical illness is because we don’t see any meaning to our lives. It tries to find a cure to these illnesses by helping people find a meaning to their life.
This week, I read his book “Man’s search for meaning”. It is about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp called Auschwitz. In addition, the book also gives an overview of Logotherapy in his own words. He is not a skilled writer but there is something so honest about his words that they touch you. There are so many poignant moments in the book.
His terrible misery at having to give-up the manuscript of his book until he discovered that he was wearing the coat of a man who was sent to the gas chambers. In the pocket there was a single page which contained a Hebrew prayer.
Although you have heard countless stories of holocaust, this story still shocks you. People were sorted based on their physical fitness to decide if they should be sent directly to the gas chambers. They had to work for long hours in the cold without adequate protection or food. A grown up man cried like a child when his shoes wore out and he had to walk bare foot in biting cold to work in the field. People were reduced to animals, doing anything for self-preservation. He even talks about cannibalism; people eating body parts of corpses. The worse of these were people who gave up hope. They used to lie in their own urine and excreta and refuse to move whatever the threat. Such people died within a few days.
Frankl asks the question “Does man have no choice of action in face of such circumstances.” And he answers, “The experience of camp life show that a man does have a choice of action… We who lived in concentration camp can remember 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 human freedoms – to choose ones attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose ones own way”
Frankl recalls a young women whom he met in the camp, who knew she would die in the next few days. Yet, she was cheerful. She said to him “I am glad that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” He says there is meaning to every life and it is unique to each one of us. He recalls a man who made a pact with god. He would bear all the suffering in exchange for the life of his loved ones. From that moment on even his suffering had a deep meaning for him.
Frankl Concludes, “Man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes he has made out of himself. In the concentration camp we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behave like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; what he becomes depends on his decisions not on conditions.
Afterall, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however he is also that being who entered those chambers upright with lord’s prayers on his lips.”