November 10, 2020

A lesson from Viktor Frankl

A lesson from Viktor Frankl

These past months have been nothing but hard and have left us all very tired. For many, this is not the first time feeling anxious or alone, nor is it the first time you lose someone close. Prolonged uncertainty has only heightened some of these emotions and exposed us to new ones. It is impossible not to feel powerless and incapable, especially when you want to help and lead the call to action - yet, your good intentions can have dire implications and place someone else’s life at risk. And even when you have followed the protocols laid out by the health authorities, you are still afraid that you might cause some harm.

At first, being home meant more time to connect with ourselves, but as time passed the opposite happened and some of us started to disconnect. Different moments in my life have demanded introspection in order to understand the present and regain the courage to go forward. I find myself going through the motions again, only this time with less clarity about what is next; the gap between reality and what I look forward to has only widened.

I have read about other moments in history were dark times forced humans to look beyond their immediate reality. Looking for answers, I remembered reading about Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Imprisoned in Auschwitz, Frankl became aware of what he called “the last of human freedoms” – the freedom Nazi captors could not take away. He challenged the assumption that human beings are invariably shaped by their surroundings:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. […] 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.

As a psychiatrist to the inmates, Frankl emphasized the importance of identifying a purpose in life or some future goal, and continuously imagining that outcome. The incessant quest for meaning according to Frankl, sustained those who survived. While I have not experienced (probably never will) the unimaginable and the countless indignities that Frankl and the other inmates did, I realize the importance of exercising self-awareness and projecting your future goals on a continuous basis. This pandemic may dictate the environment around us, but it should not limit our internal power that allows us to exercise our options. It is hard to be free mentally when we are limited physically, but we must make the effort to choose our attitude regardless. As Frankl once said, it is the last things that can be taken away.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Let us use this time to reach out to those who love us. Remind them that you are here for them. Spread joy and positivity!