Keep Practicing the Art of Living

viktor-franklIn a little more than two weeks we arrive upon the 108th anniversary of birth for Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl, MD, PhD (March 26, 1905 – September 2, 1997). I did not read his renowned work “Man’s Search for Meaning” until about ten years and remember vividly how that little book stunned me with its simplicity and wisdom. In honor of the man and the teachings he left behind, what is just below is taken from an article published in the New York Times on the day Dr. Frankl died sixteen years ago.

Viktor Frankl’s mother, father, brother and pregnant wife were all killed in the camps. He lost everything, he said, that could be taken from a prisoner, except 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.”

Every day in the camps, he said, prisoners had moral choices to make about whether to submit internally to those in power who threatened to rob them of their inner self and their freedom. It was the way a prisoner resolved those choices, he said, that made the difference.

In ”Man’s Search for Meaning,” Dr. Frankl related that even at Auschwitz some prisoners were able to discover meaning in their lives — if only in helping one another through the day — and that those discoveries were what gave them the will and strength to endure.

After their arrival at Auschwitz, they and 1,500 others were put into a shed built for 200 and made to squat on bare ground, each given one four-ounce piece of bread to last them four days. On his first day, Dr. Frankl was separated from his family; later he and a friend marched in line, and he was directed to the right and his friend was directed to he left — to a crematory.

As their illusions dropped away and their hopes were crushed, they would watch others die without experiencing any emotion. At first the lack of feeling served as a protective shield. But then, he said, many prisoners plunged with surprising suddenness into depressions so deep that the sufferers could not move, or wash, or leave the barracks to join a forced march; no entreaties, no blows, no threats would have any effect. There was a link, he found, between their loss of faith in the future and this dangerous giving up.

”We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,” he wrote. ”We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly.

”Our answer must consist not in talk and medication, 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.”

Prisoners taught one another not to talk about food where starvation was a daily threat, to hide a crust of bread in a pocket to stretch out the nourishment. They were urged to joke, sing, take mental photographs of sunsets and, most important, to replay valued thoughts and memories. Dr. Frankl said it was ”essential to keep practicing the art of living, even in a concentration camp.” By Holcomb B. Noble

When difficulty comes, I try to remember the insights Dr. Frankl left for us distilled in his quote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’. Dr. Frankl’s book, has been deeply meaningful to me and millions of others. I am grateful he left the world a better place than he found it.

Being tolerant does not mean
that I share another ones belief.
But it does mean I acknowledge
another ones right to believe,
and obey, his own conscience.
Victor E. Frankl