The first book I read in college as part of orientation was Victor Frankl’s classic, known in English as Man’s Search for Meaning. I was too young and inexperienced to catch the depth of what Frankl was about, but I felt a bit like standing at the Grand Canyon looking at something deeper than I’d ever known before. Even in the worst of situations we can be the shapers of our own meaning, attitudes, and action—that is a key to knowing how to live a life of nonviolence. Once again, thanks to my peacemaking friend Paul Dekar, who earlier wrote about Sir Jonathan Sacks.
By PAUL DEKAR
Victor Emil Frankl was a Jewish Austrian-born neurologist and psychiatrist influenced in his early professional development by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. Detained in September 1942, Frankl, his wife and other family were deported to a concentration camp. After transfers through Auschwitz, Frankl worked as a slave laborer until April 27, 1945, when United States troops liberated the camp. The only other family member to survive was Frankl’s sister Stella who had escaped from Austria by immigrating to Australia.
Frankl wove together his experience of the Holocaust with his approach to therapy in a book first published in 1946 in German. The literal English translation of the title is, Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. His book is best known for the Beacon Press edition in the 1950s, titled Man’s Search for Meaning.
In the book, Frankl explained that it was possible for spiritual life to deepen even in a death camp. Drawing from a central theme in existentialism, Frankl quoted Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
When I was a Colgate Rochester Divinity School student in the late 1960s, I read that Beacon Press edition and was moved by passages like this:
“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
“That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking 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 was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. 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. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.” (Pages 57-59)
Frankl emphasized that free people in a free society must accept responsibility for the circumstances of her or his day. One must be realists; we have come to understand humankind as we truly are. We are descendants at once of those who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz and of those who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yísrael on our lips.
Viktor Frankl recommended that a Statue of Responsibility, similar to the Statue of Liberty in New York City’s harbour, be erected. Recalling this appeal, I am aware I live with new imperatives. We struggle to abolish weapons of mass destruction, slow climate change and meet basic human needs of everyone. We take hope that, despite living on earth at the threat of decline, we can work in grace having found meaning on our beautiful planet called home.
Care to read more?
The Man’s Search for Meaning links, in today’s story, will take you to the Amazon page for the latest edition by Beacon, which was founded in 1854 and today is a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Over the past half century, the book has sold well over 10 million copies in its various editions.
The final phrase in today’s story, “planet called home,” is from an album called Edge by Holly Near.
Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers. This story originally appeared as a chapter in his first book Interfaith Heroes.