Monday, April 2, 2012

wisdom from tragedy

 From Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning
In  attempting  this  psychological  presentation  and  a psychopathological explanation of the typical characteristics of a concentration camp inmate, I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings. (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.) But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors—be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners' reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.


Smurphilicious said...

Awesome selection. This capability, to transcend one's own suffering, to have free will no matter how controlling, oppressive, and detrimental the immediate environment is to the self, is probably one the main reasons humankind has been able to develop and survive...e.g., for the oppressed to rebel, they must transcend/overcome their "personal" suffering to have the strength to fight back. This capacity, which could certainly called nothing short of miraculous when it is utilized, is highlighted in almost every spiritual, philosophical, artistic, creative "discipline" strong enough to leave a mark in our history. Just for shits and giggles :-), I included three selections: one by Joseph Campbell, the second by the Buddha, and the third is part f the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel of John. I will split them into separate comments because of the character limit....

Smurphilicious said...

"Transcendent" properly means that which is beyond all concepts. Kant tells us that all of our experiences are bounded by time and space. They take place within space, and they take place in the course of time.
Time and space form the sensibilities that bind our experiences. Our senses are enclosed in the field of time and space and our minds are enclosed in a frame of the categories of thought" (Campbell, pg. 75, The Power of Myth).

Suffering can only happen within time and space, within the finite the infinite there is no beginning or end, no death, no death of body cells, no maintain free will within suffering is to transcend the physical world.

Smurphilicious said...

"What causes of sorrow should be abandoned by enduring? Here a person, reflecting wisely, bears cold and heat, hunger and thirst, insects, wind, sun, and creeping things; one endures ill-spoken, unwelcome words. One bears bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, and distressing. While causes of suffering, vexation, and fever may arise in one who does not endure such things, there are no cause of sorrow, vexation, and fever in one who endures them" (Teachings of the Buddha, edited by Kornfield, pg. 72-72).
enduring is not meant to be seen as giving up, or not standing up for is most poignant in the context of those who are imprisoned, impoverished, living in the lowest rung of society....turn the other cheek is the christian version of this kind of "endurance." To stop the cycle, to transcend, to love thy enemy, to forgive.

Smurphilicious said...

St. John 19: 28-36 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.
Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost....
Then came the soldiers, and brakes the legs of the first and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water....that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken" (Holy Bible, King James Version).

Regarding St. John's Gospel: 1) Suffering - a. crucifixion is one on the worst, typically takes days to die and most die from dehydration and frying up in the hot, desert sun....b. shaming mother and son - Traditionally, Jewish sons were the pride and joy of the family and maintained very close relations to their mother...but also, the mother represents an earthly birth, so we also see a complete renunciation of the physical birth....c. Jesus is thirsty and they give him vinegar...dying from dehydration and/or lack of salt was unfortunately one of the more frequent ways that people died...again living in the hot desert conditions and for those in poverty, it may have been difficult to make sure they had enough salt.....d. Jesus "dies" after the vinegar was put in his mouth....this would actually be considered a blessing -- normally, men hung up there for at leas a day or so....and this is emphasized [maybe even added so we do not miss the point] when the soldiers brake the other two prisoners legs to hasten their death so that they are not hanging up there in the "Sabbath."....e. and the of course, the moment which Christians hold so close to their hearts, that although Jesus was "dead" when the soldier pierced his side he bled water and blood...water a symbol for purity/rebirth/eternity and blod symbolizing life/eternal life....Jesus was dead but was not dead.
Of particular interest regarding suffering....we can also interpret it this way: Jesus endures the worst of the worst suffering and he transcends it. We have a 3 day lag time...friday, sat, sun....Jesus goes to hell and comes back....or Jesus did hang on the cross for three days, unresponsive, outside of suffering...and to be caught within your own body that is slowly dying would probably be exactly what burning in the fires of Hell would feel Jesus suffered the fires of Hell in the hot desert sun, slowly dying, and on the third day he finally died and thus, ascended into Heaven.

Phew....Seriously...I LOVE that you posted Frankl!!! Please, if you get a chance, I would love to hear what you think....