“Suddenly there was a silence and into the night a violin sang a desperately sad tango, an unusual tune not spoiled by frequent playing. The violin wept and a part of me wept with it, for on that same day someone had a twenty-fourth birthday. That someone lay in another part of the Auschwitz camp, possibly only a few hundred or a thousand yards away, and yet completely out of reach. That someone was my wife.”
Floored, I fought the suspended reality created by the roar of the airplane as I set my book down and glanced over at my own twenty-four year old wife. She woke from her doze and smiled back at me, oblivious to the radical juxtaposition that had just smacked me upside the head. There was simply no way for her to know, and no way for me to convey the gratitude I felt to God for her at that moment. I let it be, and she drifted back to sleep.
The two of us were not yet 48 hours married and jetting off to honeymoon for a week at a tropical resort. I had begun to delve into Viktor Frankl’s hallmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the first half of which is a gripping and detailed account of the horrors that he suffered as a prisoner during the Holocaust. Imprisoned for over three years at four different concentration camps, Frankl experienced inconceivable trials at the hands of the Nazis. Starvation. Torturous slave labor. Disease. Frankl narrowly escaped death, but his liberation was met with the discovery that his mother, father, and his young wife had not.
Over the course of my honeymoon, my mind became filled of the differences between Frankl’s experiences and my own. Where Frankl had no agency over his circumstances, I had full control over mine. I had access to endless food and drink where he had only the occasional scrap of bread and unclean water. He had no idea of the whereabouts or safety of his wife with no means for finding out; mine was by my side 24/7 as we relished in absolute paradise together. The list expanded endlessly and it was more than obvious that my honeymooning experiences and Frankl’s imprisonment represented polar opposite experiences on the human spectrum of pleasure and suffering.
After the Holocaust, Frankl returned to the nothingness that awaited him in Vienna. There, he reflected on his experiences and derived universal existential themes of human spirituality and psychology from the suffering he had both experienced and witnessed. Out of his experiences, he found the philosophical evidence for the creation of Logotherapy, basing it upon the idea that man is driven not entirely by biopsychosocial drives or desire for power, but that a quest for a meaning and purpose is man’s primary motivating force.
As evidence for Logotherapy, Frankl found both extremes of human spirit and perseverance in the face of unthinkable challenges. Frankl cited story after story of prisoners losing faith in the future and succumbing almost immediately to the abhorrent psychological and physiological pressures of the concentration camps. Those who were able to maintain a sense of purpose however, often fared much better against these conditions, informing his conclusion that these forces of meaning are more powerful and intrinsic than our biological drives.
Additionally, Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps poked a major hole in Freud’s assertion that any group of men, experiencing severe threats to his survival would be devoid of all individual differences and that, “in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge.”
To this claim, Frankl rebuked,
“Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, the “individual differences” did not “blur” but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”
Frankl experienced first-hand the sort of differences that remained evident in men, even as they were systematically stripped of all worldly necessities. He tells of some prisoners who were promoted to capos and placed in charge of other prisoners. Some capos abused their power and treated prisoners worse than members of the S.S. had. But even amidst this suffering and threat to survival, others seized opportunities and used them to look out for his fellow man. Frankl memorably tells of the sole prisoner he encountered who ladled out soup to each individual impartially, giving equal amounts of beans and hearty ingredients to each individual in the line, regardless of nationality or background. According to Frankl, these differences, manifesting even in the face of unbelievable biological pressures, proved that man’s soul consisted of more than animal instincts.
Processing these truths, I basked in surreality and hid from the tropical sun as we spent our vacation eating and lounging. Every biological need met. In the complete absence of any psychological stressors.
How can I wrap my mind around this scale of human suffering and magnitude of Frankl’s resulting wisdom when I only suffer from an inevitable mild sunburn?
How do I make sense of these truths of human spirituality and the search for meaning at the core of our being when the only decision I need to make is what sort of food I want for dinner?
As I mulled over these questions throughout the week, I saw that even in these conditions of luxury, vacationers facing the slightest of challenges still found room for complaint. Folks complained about food, heat, shower door hinges, beach conditions, service, you-name-it.
Frankl, in speaking to challenges of a far more extreme sort said:
“. . . in the bitter fight for self-preservation he (man) may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
I can only assume that these individuals who could not find contentedness, even in the absence of any apparent physiological and psychological stressors, surely must have been suffering from issues of existence and meaning. At the very least, these guests blew off the opportunity to practice humility and grace in the face of incredibly trivial disappointments.
The truth that I found that week within Logotherapy is that both in the presence and absence of stressors, man acts in accordance with the state of his soul. Frankl said that it is the healing of this soul that is the mission of psychiatry and I hope to continue in this tradition through the therapy I provide. Most of all, I pray that I make the most of the underlying opportunities within challenges that come to face me in my own life.