5 min read
Four crucial ideas from this poignant masterpiece of writing.
In the grueling, endless suffering of the concentration camp, Viktor Frankl imagined himself standing at a podium giving a lecture entitled “Psychology of the Concentration Camp.” This vision of a future in which he would be able to use his suffering to help others sustained him through the horrific days and nights. Just months after he was liberated from the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl stood at that podium and gave the lectures he had envisioned for so long. This series of lectures was published in German in 1946 and remained untranslated, until recently when the manuscript, “Yes to Life In Spite of Everything,” was rediscovered.
In this poignant masterpiece of writing, Frankl recalls how in the Buchenwald concentration camp they would sing over and over again: "We still want to say yes to life. We still want to say yes to life." They sang this song in unimaginable circumstances which led Frankl to write: “To say yes to life is not only meaningful under all circumstances – because life itself is – but it is also possible under all circumstances.: (Viktor Frankl, Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, p.107)
Here are four crucial ideas from Frankl’s re-discovered manuscript.
“It is terrible to know that at every moment I bear responsibility for the next; that every decision, from the smallest to the largest, is a decision 'for all eternity'; that in every moment I can actualize the possibility of that particular moment or forfeit it. Every single moment contains thousands of possibilities-and I can only choose one of them to actualize it.” (p.106)
We may not choose what every moment of life brings us, but we can choose what to do with that moment when it arrives.
“In the course of life human beings must be prepared to change the direction of this fulfillment of meaning, often abruptly, according to the particular 'challenges of the hour.' The meaning of life can only be a specific one, specific both in relation to each individual person and in relation to each individual hour: the question that life asks us changes both from person to person, and from situation to situation.” (p.59)
Every stage of life and every different circumstance demands us to find new meaning and new goals. Sometimes this meaning can change by the day and even by the hour. There is great wisdom in having the flexibility to change directions according to the task in front of us.
“For, let us ask ourselves, honestly and seriously, whether we would want to erase the sad experiences from our past, perhaps from our love lives, whether we would want to miss out on everything that was painful or pain inducing-then we would surely all say no. Somehow we know how much we were able to grow and mature precisely during these joyless periods of our existence." (p.57)
Sometimes life is so challenging that the only meaning we can find in the moment is the sheer endurance of our suffering. It is only later that we can look back and see the tremendous growth and transformation that came out of our challenges. There are some illnesses in which people lose the ability to feel pain, and the inability to suffer itself becomes the symptom. Being able to feel and endure suffering is a gift.
“It is never a question of where someone is in life or which profession he is in, it is only a matter of how he fills his place, his circle. Whether a life is fulfilled doesn’t depend on how great one’s range of action is, but rather only on whether the circle is filled out.” (p.36)
At sunset, right after the liberation of the Turkheim concentration camp, Viktor Frankl walked into the woods where many of his comrades from the camp were buried. One of the SS commanders who had repeatedly risked his life to pay for and illegally obtain medicines for the camp prisoners had again put his life at risk to break off a piece of bark and scrawl into the trunks of the trees the names of the prisoners who he had properly buried against his superiors’ orders.
Standing there in the dying light of the sun, staring at those names, Viktor Frankl felt his own survival was an undeserved mercy. And he felt a great responsibility to earn the second chance he had been given. “It seemed only possible to settle this guilt by shaking up and keeping alert the consciences of others as well as our own.” (p.104)
Reading Frankl’s book reminded me of something I recently learned about the roots of redwood trees. The roots of the towering, majestic redwood trees do not grow deep into the ground as one would expect. Instead they grow outward in circles, extending hundreds of feet laterally, by wrapping around each other so that in a storm, all of their roots are interconnected. This is how Frankl and others survived the war, by constantly focusing on and reaching out to others, by wrapping their roots around each other in the harshest of conditions.
Hidden in the lining of his coat in the concentration camp, Frankl kept his notes for a manuscript which he lost towards the end of the war. But right after he was liberated, Frankl worked day and night to find those words again and share them with the world. His roots of meaning encircle ours and our roots encircle the roots of each other. Frankl gave us one of the greatest gifts by teaching us that it is not what we expect of life that matters; it is what life expects of us. And we too can choose to say yes to life in spite of and because of everything.