A couple of years ago, I met a man named Sam on a cruise, who was a mindfulness enthusiast. He’d begun using this idea as a method of losing weight, and while sitting next to him on this cruise, I saw his problem. He did love to eat. But he was quite slim, at about 150 pounds. He’d started out closer to 200, to hear him tell it.
Mindfulness taught him to focus on what he was doing at the time, and that meant counting every chew of whatever he was eating. It’s a pity I didn’t watch him more carefully, to see if he was as good as his word, but it seemed to be working. He even gave a few lectures on the topic during that cruise.
Now there are all sorts of courses on offer, recommending mindful meditation as the key to tranquility and contentment, both for ourselves and the society in which we live.
But what if you just can’t be mindful? What if circumstances are such that your life is a misery—an atrocity that may be ended suddenly and arbitrarily—and even if you live, you’ll be subjected to starvation, physical attacks, vile insults and hard, life-sapping labour?
What if you were in a concentration camp, in other words, and your values were challenged every day, and you were told over and over that your life had no value? What if at the bottom of this deepest of ravines, you had neither time nor space to contemplate life’s meaning, and just wished that you’d either be liberated or killed? How would you survive? How, in fact, could you survive?
One man did. He survived almost three years in the worst of the Nazi death camps, and despite being assaulted with the worst that humanity had to offer, he survived because he believed in its best.
That man was Viktor Frankl.
Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning is one of the most influential books of modern times. It isn’t a long book, and it has only a minimum of jargon. It speaks of his fall from being a successful psychiatrist—one who’d already established a career, along with the school of logotherapy and a family—to a person who had everything ripped away from him.
His parents, his wife and all his siblings, save his sister, were murdered during the Holocaust. The easiest thing would be to give up all hope and wait for the end. Or even to bring it closer. Many did commit suicide.
But he refused to give up hope; he refused to surrender his basic human dignity. He’d brought a manuscript with him, something he hoped to publish upon his release. That manuscript was the first thing taken from him. So he needed a project, something to give his life meaning, even there in the abyss.
He began, on bits of paper and whatever else he could find, to rewrite that manuscript. He began to think of the lectures he’d give on his experiences in Auschwitz, even as he understood the challenge of being too close to the subject matter. He also knew, of course, that such a lecture could never be given by somebody who hadn’t gone through it. He developed his own mind’s s eye, seeing things in the third person.
Again and again in his book, Frankl tells readers about friends helping each other to survive. He himself gave lectures about hope, about each inmate finding the meaning in his own life, because that search itself gives a person hope. With this, the aim is to hang onto your basic human dignity.
At the camp, people would save crusts of bread. If needed, they’d either trade them for cigarettes, which were the top currency there, or give them to friends who needed them more. On one occasion, an inmate stole some potatoes from the kitchen, and the Nazis demanded that the others deliver him to their hands or be deprived of food for one day. That man, of course, would be executed.
The camp didn’t hesitate to protect the man. In Frankl`s words, this was “needless to say.” The meaning of the inmates’ lives was to help each other survive.
Action over meditation?
Frankl brushes aside the idea of meditation. He believes in action, in doing, in helping others overcome their suffering and in striving to overcome your own suffering. He believes that suffering is part of life, and overcoming it is how we grow. We have no control over what befalls us, but our reaction, our response, is entirely up to us.
In fact, his book tells of visiting Folsom prison to deliver a lecture, and that the inmates there thanked him. By assigning responsibly for their misdeeds to themselves and nobody else, they gave themselves the power to change their lives.
Even throughout the daily grind, which for Frankl meant a march of several miles in any weather, followed by hard labour, he maintained his sense of purpose. He resented the constant occupation with the search for bits of food, patches for his shoes or things to use for laces. He wanted to think about his future, his family and his theories of psychiatry, which he had ample opportunity to practice. He’d always be encouraging others, getting them off thoughts of surrender and suicide—thoughts that were ever-present. Those who had hope had a better chance of survival.
It was no guarantee, of course. Random brutality always lurked. A guard who didn’t like your looks could kill you with impunity. But hope, meaning and a belief in human dignity could improve the odds. He quotes Nietzsche a few times, saying, “If you have the why (meaning) of life, then you can overcome any how.”
He didn’t say anything about searching for happiness. Meaning is what counts. In fact, it’s everything, to misquote Vince Lombardi.
Others in these death camps used similar methods to make it through. The spiritual, the Orthodox Jews, often weren’t the strongest (physically). You’d think that they’d succumb first, but they didn’t. They delved into their world of tomes, into the nature of God and humankind. They lived in a world of unbreakable optimism, as they went about their backbreaking labour, and they survived. Their lives had meaning, even there.
And what is meaning? A staple in the daily comics is a mountain climber making a pilgrimage to some guru sitting on a mountaintop. The pilgrim asks, “What is the meaning of life, great one?” The guru gives some meaningless or trivial answer.
Frankl believes that asking for a one-size-fits-all answer is like asking a grandmaster of chess what the best move is. The answer depends on the game, on the situation, on the opponent and of course, on you. It’s your game, and it’s your life. The answer is for you to discover.
He believes in living every day as if you’re starting over and learning from past mistakes. A tall order, but it affords meaning to what you’ve done and what you aspire to be. Don’t waste time thinking about life, do something about it. Do something meaningful.
At the end of one section of Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl gives a lecture at a university, as he hoped for. He does an exercise with his class, with the answer to be submitted on a piece of paper. The question is, “What do you think the purpose of my (meaning Frankl’s) life is?”
The answers are submitted, and he reads one out loud. It says, “The purpose of your life is to help others find meaning in theirs.”
He looks up at the class and says, “That is exactly my answer.”
Cruise: A type of vacation in which a few thousand people congregate on massive ships in order to eat and drink in outrageous excess and to buy overpriced art.
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image 1: PublicDomainPictures.net; image 2: Wikimedia Commons