“On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves,” wrote Viktor Frankl, in his account of being a WWII prisoner in Auschwitz, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
The prison camp brings out the true nature of people, and Frankl, a doctor, was a close observer of human nature. Making the most of a grim situation, he wrote this book summarizing what he learned from his time in the death camp.
The most ruthless survived the German concentration camps. Many gave up, sunk into apathy, and slid into disrepair and inevitable death. Those who chose to find meaning – any meaning – found will to go on day-by-day.
Grow Beyond Yourself
For prisoners, the camp was a constant test of inner strength.
Those who opted out, stopped taking their lives seriously. “Life for such people became meaningless,” Frankl wrote. Once they let go of everything, apathy overtook them. They wallowed in the past, sliding uncaringly towards death.
But the others who continued to struggle, found, in the process, a spiritual freedom in their suffering, no matter their fate.
That freedom was “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Each day they made moral choices. Those choices defined who they were.
“No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them,” he wrote.
The camp of prisoners was like any other gathering of humans, a mixture of decent and indecent people, and each person carrying the power for both good or bad within themselves: the guard who saves a crust of bread from his lunch for a prisoner.
From this, Frankl saw that the man’s chief purpose was not pleasure, nor even the avoidance of pain, but rather to see a meaning of his life. It was man's decisions, not his conditions, who cemented who he was.
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering,” Frankly generalized from his grim experiences.
“The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world, rather than within man or his own psyche.”
Each person’s goal must be singular, and found out in the world, rather than within one’s self. The more one forgets himself, by giving to another cause, the more he actualizes himself. Self actualization is always a by-product of another cause – it can’t be achieved as a direct goal.
Mental health is based on the tension of what one has achieved and what should still do –the difference between what one is and what one should become.