By all accounts, Auschwitz was one of the most horrible things to happen on the face of this planet. There were other camps as well that employed such egregious methods, such as Dachau, but the one that stands firm in our collective memory is Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a word that darkens and ends many bloodlines. It is a word that instills the deepest imagery of human suffering in recent history. To think it happened less than one hundred years ago seems unreal.
There was a Jewish doctor who survived Auschwitz and several other camps by the name of Victor Frankl. He wrote about his experiences in a book called “Man’s Search For Meaning“. This book has been recommended by a hero of mine, Dr. Peter Kreeft, as one of the top five books to “make everybody in the world read at gunpoint”. Even though he laughs as he says this, I have little reason to doubt the intention. Now that I have read it, I gladly reaffirm his sentiment. This book is important.
I am not going to summarize the book, nor will I give a review of it—such would waste everyone’s time, it’s a classic. I’m just letting you know about it in order to use the occasional example from its text. Hopefully you will find the time to read it on your own.
Now, let’s begin.
Of all the lessons in life, the most important usually come to us over issues of life and death. This is for a reason: life and death trump everything. Imagine telling a friend about a rough day at work where you go on and on for thirty minutes. You’re friend responds with nods of the head as usual, but their eyes wander to other people in the coffee shop until eventually you feel irritated. Why won’t they listen? This work shit is a big deal, and you’ve listened to them complain about their husband for the last week straight. When do you get some of that attention?
Next imagine the friend interrupts you and says something like, “I’m so sorry, but I haven’t really been paying attention… I, just… My nephew was hit by a bus this morning. He was killed. The funeral is going to be this weekend… I didn’t know how to bring it up with you, I’m so sorry. I’m the worst friend.”
How would you respond?
I’m willing to bet that your work problems suddenly become insignificant. They would not register. You have a friend who needs consoling and that trumps everything. You’d even stop what you’re doing and probably give them a hug. You’d invite them over for supper, you’d offer to watch their kids, you’d do anything. Anything to help.
Or a shorter example: have you ever had a near death experience? Narrowly avoided getting into a big traffic accident? If you live in Edmonton the answer is yes. These things happen with some serious frequency everywhere though, so chances are you’ve had a few close calls. When this happens, what is the first thing you think about? Is it your mortality—the fact that you have only so many hours left to do things in this world? Does death scare you, even now that you are all grown up?
Of course it does. It can scares all of us.
When the thousands upon thousands of souls were tortured in Auschwitz, it was not uncommon among the prisoners to become desensitized to death. When friends and strangers die all around you everyday, when people are sent to work on the railroad in bare feet during the freezing cold, when food is not sufficient and you know hunger beyond hunger, and when bodies thinned til they were no longer recognizable—death may begin to even look desirable. In his book, Frankl talks about the psychology of this and goes into his personal reasons for actively pursuing life. It was not the idea of some absent God or the thought that he would try and stay alive for the good of Mankind, no it was nothing like that. He tried to stay alive for his wife. A concrete reason.
It was a reason that is as real as flesh—that is what got him through, psychologically speaking. He noticed too that as soon as his fellow man had given up hope, that they no longer thought they had any reason to live, death was surely to follow. Complacency came, acting in ways that were known to bring anger to the Capos, and even suicide. Giving up was deadly.
The connection he makes so much more eloquently than I is that life without meaning is life as an animal. It would have been easy to retreat into animal tendencies when you had to march east to west in groups of dying people, directed by the butt ends of German rifles. Survival was staying away from the edges where you would be smacked. Survival was standing straight and looking smart, even when you wanted to collapse, even when you had no strength.
But that was survival. Actually living was another matter.
There is only one thing that cannot be taken from you. They may take your clothes, they may take your food, even your freedom to move. They may take all of your friends, but they may never take the thoughts in your head. They can never take your meaning, your why.
It’s as Neitche wrote: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Buddha’s first noble truth is that Life is Suffering. Any time on this planet will confirm this. Even the first moments of birth are harrowing. What Frankl and others like him did was in spite of suffering, they used the freedom of their minds and their hearts. There were times when he found himself in a sort of ecstasy speaking to his wife who was not there, who may have been dead. It didn’t matter because he sensed her and believed she was there, real in some way beyond his understanding. As he froze and walked around with swollen limbs that could hardly bend without excruciating pain, hearing the shouts and blows of tormentors—at times Victor found a peace in his heart like no other. Death did not scare him, but he did not run to it either.
You can do the same even though your sufferings may not be as severe. Every suffering is an opportunity to realize how close we are to the edge. Above all, they are opportunities to reach out with your heart and grasp for its deepest desires, to hold them in your secret garden where no man can rob you.
So live with purpose, my friends. This is what gives value to life, and this is what conquers all death and suffering. May the rest of your days be long and full of joy.