Last night I gave a presentation on Viktor Frankl, and I thought to myself: I need to write about this!
The issue is that I already wrote about it two years ago in my September 2016 post called Searching.
This message is one we need to hear more than once, plus I have added new readers in the past two years. Besides which, even if you have read it before, you have a new mindset and new experiences with which to measure it against.
As I tell the kids in Sunday School when they say we’ve already had that lesson, “Yes, but you heard it when you were five and now you’re seven. You’re listening with new ears.”
So readers, please read with new eyes.
Dr. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychologist. In 1940, he was the Director of the Neurological Department of a hospital in Vienna, Austria.
He was a Jew in a time and area where it was dangerous to be Jewish.
He and his wife Tilly were forced by the Nazis to abort their unborn child in 1942. Later that year he, his wife, his parents, and sister were rounded up and deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, north of Prague.
In 1944 he, Tilly, and his mother were moved to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. His mother was killed in the gas chamber, and Tilly was moved to the Bergen-Belsen Camp where she died soon after at the age of 24.
Dr. Frankl was moved from Auschwitz and held at Kaufering and Türkheim (subsidiary camps of Dachau). He was liberated by US troops in April 1945. Soon after World War II ended, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over ten million copies and has been translated into 24 languages. At its core, part is devoted to concentration camp life and how the average prisoner coped. How did they keep living under such horrendous conditions?
My favorite passage of the book tells of a terrible incident but is also enlightening. Dr. Frankl has been restrained naked to an exam table while some untold experiment is being performed on him. He has a sudden realization that he has nothing left. Nothing. He has lost everything.
Think about that for a moment and consider the enormity of his loss. He had lost
- Family: his unborn child, his wife, his parents, his sister, his brother, his sister-in-law
- Other people: friends, neighbors, his staff, his patients
- Status as a member of the community: his career, his writing, his volunteer work
- His way of life: leisure time, the pattern of spending his days, eating
- Every single possession: his books, his socks, his pen, his car, his home
In that moment of total clarity comes my favorite Frankl quote: “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.”
We are blessed with the freedom to choose how we will respond to any circumstance. That is an awe-inspiring freedom.
And so, Dr. Frankl used the death camp experience as a way to help others. The idea that he is best known for is that everything in life has meaning. We are to find meaning not just in the happy, contented, all’s-right-with-the-world moments. No. There is meaning in the dark, lonely, miserable, pain-filled times as well. Even in death, life never ceases to have meaning.
That’s a difficult message to believe when a traumatic event unfolds before us, grabs us and shakes us so hard that we feel our vision has been damaged. We are left not quite the same.
And sometimes, we too feel as Dr. Frankl did — as though we have lost everything. His anchor, believing his work could help others and that there was hope for some kind of future, helped him survive.
So to those who are hurting right now, know that my prayer is that you too will find even the tiniest spark of hope and encouragement to believe that your life has meaning.
Because it does.