(Reno, NV) My book for this week (on the plane and in the hotel) is Man’s Search for Meaning
, by Viktor Frankl. I’ve found it a good companion to my fasting and the contemplation it engenders (for Ash Wednesday and Lent). It’s one man’s – a psychiatrist’s – experiences in Nazi concentration camps, and his efforts to find meaning in such suffering.
He writes of why he chose to stay in Austria after the Nazis invaded, even though he’d received an immigration visa to America:
My old parents were overjoyed because they expected that I would soon be allowed to leave Austria. I suddenly hesitated, however. The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie?… this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for "a hint from Heaven," as the phrase goes.
It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Commandments. Eagerly I asked, "Which one is it?" He answered, "Honor thy father and they mother that thy days may be long upon the land." At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.
By now, the experiences he relates are common knowledge: suffering without bound through starvation, forced labor, torture, disease and death. But he noticed how some were better able to cope with it than others. Quoting Nietzsche, he says, “He who has a why
to live for can bear with almost any how
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
He saw that these prisoners had found a purpose, a meaning, in their suffering. “They were worthy of their sufferings,” he says.
As he explores how these prisoners were able to find meaning in a life of such intense suffering, he tackles the big question: “What is the meaning of life?” I think his answer bears repeating, so I paraphrase:
‘What is the meaning of life?’ is not a question we should be asking. It’s a question we should be answering. Life is asking it of us, and each of us has his own, individual answer. You give your life meaning. You make your life meaningful.
So do it. NOW.