"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Viktor Frankl: From Suffering and Death to a Life Fully Lived

"When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer he will have to accept suffering as His Task, his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his stead. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden."
Viktor E. Frankl, "From Death Camp to Existentialism"
For those not familiar with the literary and psychological works of Viktor Frankl, a brief recounting of some crucial moments of his life story may shed light on the length and difficulties this remarkable man faced on his spiritual road from Holocaust survivor to eminent psychological theorist.

Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997 )
In September of 1942, the newly graduated young doctor, his new bride, his mother, father, and brother, were arrested in Vienna and taken to a concentration camp in Bohemia.  It was events that occurred there and at three other camps that led the young doctor - prisoner 119,104 - to realize the significance of meaningfulness in life.

One of the earliest events to drive home the point was the loss of a manuscript - his life's work - during his transfer to Auschwitz.  He had sewn it into the lining of his coat, but was forced to discard it at the last minute.  He spent many later nights trying to reconstruct it, first in his mind, then on slips of stolen paper.

 Frankl along with 1,500 prisoners on a Geman cattle train pulled into a Polish switching yard. "Everyone's heart missed a beat at that moment," Frankl recalls. "Auschwitz -- the very name stood for all that was horrible: gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres. Slowly, almost hesitatingly, the train moved on as if it wanted to spare its passengers the dreadful realization as long as possible. Auschwitz!"

With the "fateful selection process" designating a person either to turn to the left and live, or to turn to the right and die, Frankl was spared the too-soon fate of those pointed to the right - the billowing crematoria that ran 24 hours a day at Auschwitz, and through which the earthly remains of some 1.2 million souls would ultimately pass.

Then, after this first and most essential reprieve, along with the remaining few who turned left Frankl was forced to run a gauntlet through electrified barbed wire to a showering station where they were stripped of virtually every possession they had left.  Though he tried to bargain for his precious manuscript he saw that this was fruitless and tossed it along with his clothes into the growing pile of personal possessions on the floor of the changing room to the showering shed.

"At that moment," Frankl recalls, "I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life."

Unlike his young wife, parents and brother, Frankl survived the war against all the odds and was able to rewrite his thesis, this time based upon the scraps of paper which outlined the profound and varied reactions that he had witnessed - both in himself and in others - to the unremitting physical and existential suffering that were the backdrop to their daily lives.

Ultimately, while Frankl posits three specific ways that an individual may come to find meaning in his or her life - through one's life work, through one's love for another, or through overcoming suffering - he notes that this generalization of itself does little good, as "the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour."

"What matters, therefore," says Frankl, "is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of life at a given moment."
"Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of 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."
 Thus, he urges:
"Live as if you were living already for the second time, and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" It seems to me that there is nothing that would stimulate a man's sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is passed, and that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life's finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.
[Viktor E. Frankl, "Man's Search for Meaning," p.131]
 "Live as if you were living already for the second time. . ." Is this not the existential equivalent of "die before dieing," the age-old precept and advice of the spiritual masters and sages of all ages, cultures and continents?

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The following audio excerpt is from the first chapter of Viktor Frankl's most famous work, "Man's Search for Meaning," the story of Frankl's insights gained in a series of Nazi concentration camps, and an outline of "logotherapy," his psychological theory of existentialism, suffering and ultimate meaning.

The remainder of "Man's Search for Meaning" is available here as an "audio book" on Youtube.

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