In the outstanding classic ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, Swiss psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Viktor Frankl gifted us with the story of his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Frankl’s insights into human freedom, dignity, and love provide an avenue to finding greater meaning and purpose in our own lives. Personally, this book has had a profoundly important influence on the level of significance to which I ascribe whatever problems I encounter in daily life. But perhaps what struck me most, is the sheer strength of the love shared between Frankl and his wife, which as we will see, helped him to overcome the most deeply grim set of existential circumstances.
It was at a later stage in the concentration camp when the prisoner’s mental state, namely their thoughts and dreams, had devolved to a more “primitive” nature. All efforts and emotions were centered on one task; Preserving one’s own life and that of the other fellow. It was also at this time that one’s culinary desires started rushing to take center stage in the food musical that had become his dreams. The daily ration in camp consisted of “very watery soup given out once daily, and the usual small bread ration”, so it is no wonder that Frankl and his fellow inmates began fantasizing about cake and the like. On the very rare occasion that prisoners were working and not being closely watched by guards, their conversation would inevitably veer in the direction of culinary related matters;
“One fellow would ask another working next to him in the ditch what his favorite dishes were. Then they would exchange recipes and plan the menu for the day when they would have a reunion — the day in a distant future when they would be liberated and returned home. They would go on and on, picturing it all in detail, until suddenly a warning was passed down the trench, usually in the form of a special password or number: ‘The guard is coming.’”
The horror of being forced to exist in such a harsh environment while simultaneously contending with the fear of being heard merely speaking about food, is truly unfathomable, unimaginable. I remember reading this book for the first time in my bedroom and being repeatedly overwhelmed by the emotions it stirred up within. I had obviously learned of the Nazi regime in school, and possessed a general understanding of what had gone on in Nazi concentration camps, but ‘Mans Search For Meaning’ just made it much more intimately real for me. I mean, sometimes I get pissed off if it starts raining, or if I feel a bit colder than I’d like to be. How privileged am I? That’s what the great books do. They make us acutely aware, sometimes painfully aware of our frailties, our inadequacies, our illusions. And this is a really good thing, because it shines a search light on aspects of our lives that may require some touching up. In reading this masterful book, I gained insurmountable admiration for concentration camp inmates, unmerciful disdain for the heinous Nazi regime, and a double XL dose of perspective.
Consider the following excerpt. I have an inkling that it may motivate you to re-evaluate the significance of your problems;
“Those who have not gone through a similar experience can hardly grasp what it means to stand digging in a trench, listening only for a siren to announce the half hour lunch interval when bread would be rationed out (as long as it was still available): repeatedly asking the foreman, if he wasn’t a disagreeable fellow — what the time was; and tenderly touching a piece of bread in one’s coat pocket, first stroking it with frozen gloveless fingers, then breaking off a crumb and putting it in one’s mouth and finally, with the last bit of willpower, pocketing it again, having promised oneself that morning to hold out till afternoon.”
In addition to food, the prisoners also dreamed of taking warm baths and smoking cigarettes. This change in dream content from commonly reported phenomena, like being chased, to dreaming about desired luxury items, like food, is known in psychoanalysis as ‘wish fulfillment’. Wish fulfillment is an involuntary psychic phenomenon first introduced by Sigmund Freud in the year 1900, however, far form fulfilling wishes, these dreams of desire were instead to the prisoners detriment. The painstaking contrast between the fantasy of sweet indulgence and the hellish reality of camp life just served to exacerbate how shit everything was. However, the prisoners did not dream only of pleasantries;
“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him”.
The miserable living conditions, or rather, conditions of existence (it could not be said that these men were living), went beyond that which constitutes a nightmare. Have any of you ever wondered what it must feel like to be imprisoned in a concentration camp, on account of some genocidal maniac holding prejudice against your religious orientation? I doubt you have, and I don’t blame you, because it hardly bears thinking about. But it is important to understand the horrifying reality of man’s capacity for evil, because without an understanding of the horror to which prisoner’s were subjected, we are incapable of fully appreciating the fierce power of their indomitable spirit.
On the dark march back to camp from their work sites, prisoners could be heard quietly murmuring; “Well, another day is over”. But their reprieve was short lived, when back at camp, with little else to ponder, inmates made predictions on which member of their “little community” would be next to die. Not a pleasant conversation, suffice to say. At this late stage, prisoners were able to predict with an element of certainty which unfortunate soul would be next to fall;
“‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless … Perhaps it can be understood, then, that even the strongest of us was longing for the time when he would have fairly good food again, not for the sake of good foot itself, but for the sake of knowing that the sub-human existence, which had made us unable to think of anything other than food, would at last cease.”
As the inmates stumbled along in the darkness on their edema ridden feet, in soaking wet shoes that had wire for laces, being hit from all angles by rifle butts, a man marching next to Frankl whispered quietly to him; “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.” This brought thoughts of Frankl’s own wife to mind, his account of which makes for some of the most profoundly beautiful words that I have ever been lucky enough to consume. Nothing I say could possibly complement the perfection of Frankl’s words, so rather than butcher them, I will present to you the excerpt word for word. I hope it touches your heart as it touched mine;
“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 fulfilment. 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’.
In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. the guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus, my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered.
‘Stop!’ We had arrived at our work site. Everybody rushed into the dark hut in the hope of getting a fairly decent tool. Each prisoner got a spade or a pickaxe. ‘Can’t you hurry up, you pigs?’ Soon we had resumed the previous positions in the ditch. The frozen ground cracked under the point of the pickaxes, and sparks flew. The men were silent, their brains numb. My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing — which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out; but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.
‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’
Thank you for reading,
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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