Thursday, June 11, 2015

Growing a dream of a better world, even in Auschwitz

Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.
- Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

He has been reduced to a number tattooed on his arm. His ability to survive until tomorrow depends on being able to dig stones for a long day without collapsing from malnutrition and fatigue, and on being able to get a few peas at the bottom of a bowl of soup, and at not falling foul of one of the SS guards or the no less brutal Capos, fellow-prisoners selected to act as wardens and help select who will be sent to the "bathhouse" that leads to the crematorium. He reaches into the storehouse of memory for images that can help him to live. He cherishes little things from the life that has been taken from him, like taking a bus ride, or turning on the lights in his apartment, or finding real food in the kitchen. Most of all, he cherishes the image of his wife. He doesn't know whether she is still alive, but the great love between them is real, and helps to sustain him.
    When he can get scraps of paper, he tries to reconstruct the book manuscript that was torn from him by a Capo when he came here. He dreams of seeing it published. In the indeterminate state of a death camp prisoner, with no way of knowing whether he will live or die within the next hour, he chooses to grow a vision of the future in his mind. It is an extraordinary vision, and it takes a terrific act of will for him to turn his mind from his bleeding feet and aching stomach to inhabit a future that very few could begin to imagine. The emaciated prisoner of Auschwitz transports himself to a warm and comfortable lecture room, in a civilized time and place in which the horrors of World War II lie in the past. The speaker is the prisoner himself, Dr Viktor Frankl. From the platform, he surveys an attentive audience, seated on handsomely upholstered chairs. His topic? The psychology of the concentration camp.
-   After his release from Auschwitz and the fall of the Third Reich, Viktor Frankl recalled the effect of this remarkable exercise in active imagination. "All that oppressed me in that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself." [1]
-   This is a stellar example of the power of dreamgrowing - of developing a creative vision powerful enough to carry you beyond adversity. Inside one of the worst of history's nightmares, Viktor Frankl reclaimed the identity and the future that had been torn from him. He not only saw himself surviving the death camps; he saw himself emerging to found a new approach to psychology on what he had learned from them. In doing this, he stepped outside and above his appalling circumstances to adopt the perspective of a witness and a scientist. He transported hmself to a future time in which the hideous collective nightmare was in the past. In doing this, he succeeded in escaping, mentally, from the camp. But he did more: he reached for a possible future so powerfully that it seems than an answering force helped to pull him towards it.
-  Whatever the pain and adversity of our lives, we can all take heart from Viktor Frankl's tremendous example. Even when all other freedoms are denied to us - he later insisted - we can never lose one final freedom, the freedom to choose our attitude. We can choose to give up, or to struggle on. We can choose to find meaning in our suffering, or to pronounce our world unfair and meaningless (as too many people do under circumstances that look quite comfortable to most of the world's poor, let alone a death camp inmate). It is our choice. If we choose to believe that we have no choice, we are still making a choice. If Viktor Frankl could say yes to life in Auschwitz, and find meaning in what life threw at him, even there, who are we to go about with the misery-guts attitude that life is unfair, or meaningless?
-   Frankl founded the method he called logotherapy, sometimes described as the third of the great Viennese schools of psychology (after Freud and Adler). As the name suggests, this is therapy based on the need for logos or meaning. The central thesis is that many of our ailments are noögenic - that is to say, they have their origin in the realm of noös, or mind, rather than in the psyche as observed by psychiatrists, or the body as diagnosed by physicians. The human animal needs meaning as well as food and air and sex and water. The sense that life is meaningless is at the root of a great deal of depression, agression and addiction, which can only be addressed by a restoration of the sense that life is meaning-full.
-   How do we find meaning in our lives? We find it in work, especially through creative action. We find it as we engage in the world, and with other people. We find it - Frankl insisted over and over - in the attitude we adopt in the face of unavaoidable suffering.
    Let me add that we also find meaning through our engagement with our dreams. Our dreams, and the powers that speak to us in dreams, are forever inviting us to reclaim the knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and what our purpose is in our current life experience.
-I read Man's Search for Meaning when I was a student. I've read it three times since, and I expect I'll read it again. It offers perennial wisdom. Frankl deploys several of my favorite quotes that are relevant to his theme.
-   From Nietzsche, he borrows this celebrated and telling truth: "He who has a why to live can cope with almost any how."
    From Dostoyevsky, this: "My only fear in life is of not being worthy of my suffering."
    From Spinoza: "Suffering ceases to be suffering as soon as we produce a clear and precise picture of it."
    And then he quotes the Viennese poet, Arthur Schnitzler, a contemporary of Freud. Schnitzler maintained that there are really only three virtues, which he itemized as follows: objectivity, courage, and the sense of responsibility. An interesting choice for a poet.
     We saw something of the merit of "objectivity" in the way Frankl was able to take himself out of his situation in the death camp and look down - and back - from the viewpoint of a scientific observer. Courage, certainly, is a fundamental virtue. It is not the absence of fear; that could be psychosis or reckless stupidity. Courage is fear conquered by something stronger than fear, by love, or belief, or dury, or a cause. The sense of responsibiliity - of being responsible for our own lives, first and last, and for exercising our power to choose our responses to whatever life gives us - is clearly of vital importance in a ife that meets the existential challenge:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, 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[2]

Not a bad exercise, in our own quest for meaning, to name the three virtues that count for most in our own experience. Whatever selection we make, for me, as for Frankl (thinking of his beloved wife in the death camp) the fundament of all is love. This is what makes us human, and sustains us daily, even when we dare not say its name.

[1] Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1985) p.95.
[2] ibid p.131.


nina said...

As many others I admire Viktor Frankl though the only book I have ever read was his Autobiography (Was nicht in meinen Buchern steht).
What maybe struck me more than anything else was his confession that he never had "matura dreams" but all his life was dreaming about being in the concentration camp again. It seemed to him his real exam of maturity. He says that in fact he could avoid deportation by early emigration to America where he could further develop logotherapy and accomplish his life goal. But this was exactly what he didn´t do and so got into Oswiecim. This horrible experience he called experimentum crucis, in which primordial human abilities of self-transcendence and self-distance were validated- in his own words.
It sounds almost unbelievable in the contemporary world, in which we invented so many clever means to escape our natural human suffering, that someone could consciously choose the bitter part of the deal as a way of initiation. Viktor Frankl´s choice turns our desires for always comfortable and unproblematic life upside down and simply suggests that the human suffering is here to help us to overcome everything what is not real in us.

James Wilson said...

admirable how someone managed to survive in such an inhuman situation, and kept his senses.