Book Nook: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: On the “Last of the Human Freedoms”

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Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, that is, to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

TO COMPOSE a brief synthesis of Viktor Frankl’s lucid insights on a prisoner’s self-transcendence over the inhumanity of the Holocaust is the purpose of this essay.

From 1941 until 1945, the Jews were held captive and systematically massacred in the concentration camps under the Nazi territories. The covert methods of this genocide included starvation, heavy manual labor under severe conditions, torture, hanging in the gallows, then mass murders, gas chambers, and crematoriums—methods that, by the final stages of the war, had already decimated approximately 11 million people.

Upon captivity, all possessions were taken away from the prisoners, names replaced by numbers, not a strand of hair left unshaven on their bodies. They were forced to toil like animals, despite their serious malnourishment, and slumber in abominably small bunk beds like stacks of corpses.

Nothing was left of the prisoners’ lives but their hope for liberation and their nakedness to the inevitability of death surrounding them. But amid the gamut of terrors, for three years, Frankl, who was a psychiatrist before the occupation, investigated the camp’s psychology and secretly jotted down notes on scraps of paper that served as the manuscript for his own psychotherapeutic theory: that is logotherapy (logos is Greek for meaning).

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning—an autobiography about his Holocaust experience and an introduction to the concepts of logotherapy—Frankl postulated that “the sort of person a prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, not the result of the camp influences alone.”

Numerous prisoners, after recognizing the impossibility of surviving under the camp’s environment, either ran into the electrically charged fences to commit suicide or simply awaited death to come over their beds. They found no meaning in prolonging their unjustifiable suffering.

But Frankl observed there were a few prisoners who “never lost their ideals in the depths of degradation” and possessed a humor that offered necessary self-detachment and reprieve from the conditions. They endured their suffering honorably and remained as though undaunted in the face of the camp’s thoroughly abject reality.

These odd behaviors, however small in number, Frankl concluded, suffice as proof that the “work of choosing” and the “will to meaning” become the “soul’s weapon in the fight for self-preservation.” As long as there is a deep sense of meaning that fortifies the spirit, an individual can suffer without despair and not become subject to decay.

Logotherapy presupposes that man’s inherent will to meaning and freedom of choice are the authors to his own personality: “Man is more than psyche. […] Man is a self-determining being, man decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”

The antithesis of surrendering to the machinery of the base instincts is the discipline of making conscious decisions in each moment. Between stimulus and response is a space of freedom that is solely determined by the individual’s volition.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: February 29, 2016)

“Bugsay”

HE WAS NOW DOWN to his last bottle of rum. He swigged half of it as he sat at the edge of his bangka, his feet swaying with the current, his eyes gazing at his reflection on the water under the blurred disk of the moon.

He poured the rest of the rum into the sea and let the bottle slip from his grasp.

Soon he began paddling, arms afire, intoxicated yet determined. He held on to his resolve and never looked back. The clouds above him massed together, like a crowd gathering around a man threatening to take his own life.

Upon reaching the farthest his arms would let him, he set aside his paddle and unsheathed his sundang, which was a fine glint under the feeble moonlight. He glided his fingertips along its cool edge, the image of the blade leaping down his throat and of his naked body afloat in the sea running through his mind.

Just then the clouds sparked, and rain started to pour.

Chills ran all over his body. His bones grew weak. His life was a line of delicate tiles falling one by one. The sundang dropped from his helpless grip. Vertigo struck him as a lightning would a remote tree, and he collapsed into his own vomit.

 

It was a timeless dark when he opened his eyes—eyes he didn’t remember closing. The rain had stopped, he figured as he looked up, but the clouds remained crowds in the sky.

He kneeled in front of where he thought God was and cursed him without cease. He wept until he was blind, and fell into the deep well of sleep.

He awoke amid the still night, shivering. He willed himself to stand but couldn’t: he was feverish to the bone. He curled up in his bangka as would a fetus in his mother’s womb. He closed his eyes and entered sleep’s chamber. There he dreamt in delirium as, outside, the night crept closer toward dawn.

 

The night arrived at daylight.

His fever had already settled down, but his mouth still held a hint of nausea. His inflamed eyes looked for the sun and saw it. Lying on his back, spread-eagled, he let the warmth sober him up while he squinted at the clearness of the day.

It was not long when he regained the strength to get back to his feet. He stood, welcoming the heat that stung his back. He picked up the sundang lying near his feet. It glinted under the sun. He glided his fingertips along its edge, which was also starting to get warm. He dipped the sundang into the sea, wiped the blade with his shirt, and slipped it back into its sheath.

When the day turned into fire, he stripped off his clothes, unsheathed the sundang, and dove into the water.

The Accomplice

                                           

And one clock stopped—and knew the meaning of time
—Anonymous

 

AT PRECISELY 6:30 P.M., he noted, his mother was rushed to the hospital on account of a violent seizure.

The building was possessed by the spirits of disinfectant and the long lines of cold, seemingly undying fluorescent lights. The march of the doctors, nurses, personnel, and patients on wheel chairs with their guardians, along with the around-the-clock operative necessities in the passageways and rooms, always unsettled him. He wondered—not for the first time—how many patients die each day in all hospitals.

They were now inside a room. He sat on a stool beside his mother’s bed, gently pressing one unresponsive hand.

He felt that his mother’s apparatus sourced an ominous gravity. He tried not to keep time to its punctuated beeping, yet he couldn’t help but give a furtive glance at the transparent tubes and fluctuating green lines, and then at his timeworn watch wrapped around his wrist.

Its hands pointed to 8:15 p.m. Checking the time gave him a sense that moments were now fixed and numbered. When he heard the door swing open, he turned and saw the doctor, who then reported to him the results.

“Sir, I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “But your mother’s in a critical condition.”

He didn’t respond—or rather, had no idea how. In fact, he turned back to his wristwatch, and made as if he was fiddling with it.

The doctor waited. The silence let in an air so sinister that despite the double fluorescent bulbs, the room seemed to grow darker as if it were also suffering an episode of its own illness.

“Sir,” the doctor addressed him again.

“Doc,” he said. He wiped his face with the neck of his shirt and stood to face the doctor.

“We all did our best,” said the doctor, “but there’s nothing we can do now but pray and prepare ourselves for anything tha can happen any moment.”

“I see that,” he said as he gazed at an invisible dot on the white wall behind the doctor. “Doc, can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” said the doctor.

“Doc,” he said, his eyes still fixed on the dot. “What are your thoughts on God?”

The dot on the wall sprang into visions corresponding to his sharp query.

The doctor just stood silent.

“Him letting people suffer and die?” he added. “It seems like Death is God Himself.”

He tapped at his watch as if to indicate life as it draws near death. He glanced down.

The hands pointing coldly to 8:31 p.m. made him ask, “Where’s God now?” He looked at every corner of the room and turned to the doctor. “See, Doc? Only Death is coming to us.”

He sat back on his stool, realizing he has never actually believed in God, but has always wanted to blame Him ever since.

“I bear witness to these tragedies almost every day,” said the doctor.

He stared at him, and their eyes met.

“Doc,” he said. “I just don’t understand why all these things happen.”

“I suppose we must try to endure all that is to come, however worse they’ll get. The least we could do is to try.”

The doctor let out a deep sigh, reviewed his other papers, and checked his own watch. “Sir, I’m sorry, but I need to be going now. I need to attend to my other patients.”

The doctor hurried out with an unsteady stride.

When the door opened, from where he sat, he heard a score of footsteps, and imagined one of them to be Death’s.

He took in what the doctor had said about enduring “all that is to come.” He observed his mother’s faintly heaving chest and thought her lungs were giving up on the weight of breathing.

He meditated on her mother’s culminating mortality that was reflecting his, the doctor’s, and everyone’s. Diseases, accidents, misfortune, time, fate, and even life itself were all accomplices of death.

His own belief templates and choices, in some obscure link, influence or even determine someone else’s, and his too, he concluded, were preconfigured by other people’s, by the past, and all the way back to the womb of space and time.

Thus he examined the course of his life, as a metaphor: Had he spent more time with her mother, her life would not have been thoroughly miserable. Had she been a better mother, he would have not left her alone. Had his father not been a monster of a husband, his mother would not have turned insufferably monstrous herself. Had life gone easy on his father as a child, he would not have created monsters.

Everyone, including himself, was Death’s accomplice, he thought with the similar certitude sentencing his own death in the future.

He looked at his watch and turned around to listen to the muffled footsteps behind the door. For some unknown reason or sensation, he divined the inevitable arrival.

A long, loud beep filled the room.

Keeping a Diary: A Lifelong Discipline

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If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.

—Anais Nin, In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays


MY INDULGENCE on Henry Miller’s autobiographical novels has led me to Anais Nin, a free-spirited, intelligent woman whose ideas have molded and complemented with Miller’s writings. I’ve no sooner read Nin’s works than she becomes one of the few female writers I adore and venerate.

Nin, a monumental diarist and feminist in the twentieth century, writes “to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection” and to “recreate [herself] when destroyed by living.” The lifelong and almost-daily practice of keeping a diary has built her “an inner world that can withstand destruction.”

At age 11, Nin has started the diary as a series of letters to her father who abandoned the family. She decides to become a writer. Decades later, the diary has grown into some 150 volumes. The 35,000 pages of handwritten journals are now kept as a unique, uncensored document of a woman’s “multileveled” life contending against puritanical, societal dogmatism and restraints.

Her five novels, collection of short stories, and essays on various subjects, Nin believes, are all “merely outcroppings” from her diary: what she produces outside is “a distillation, the myth, the poem.”

Here, gathered from Nin’s and Miller’s works, are a few methods of their lifelong discipline:

  1. The diary as a confessional and confidant. Begin by “eliminating the idea of the [diary] as [good writing].” Express explicitly and fearlessly. “It’s not an exercise in literature; it’s an exercise in our lives.”
  2. Automatic writing. This is devised by the surrealists to bypass consciousness. It is thought without effort and control. Write “unconsciously,” with abandon and digressiveness, as though possessed by spirits. Besides its cathartic effect, this method introduces intimacy with the cryptic workings of the mind and the “supernatural forces.”
  3. Free association and dreams (techniques in psychoanalysis). The person is given a certain word as a stimulus and is encouraged to report—quickly and without censorship—whatever image or word association that arises in his mind; this is to uncover repressed thoughts.
    When recording dreams, don’t rush to wake up; instead, with eyes still closed, remain in the twilight state (between waking and sleeping), reach inward for that last thread of dream material, and trace back the labyrinth before writing. Note down impressions of the dream. List a string of free associations stemming from the dream elements (e.g., a stab wound in the dream could be related to the fear of death or suppressed sexual arousal in real life).
  4. Various compositions. Write insights on specific subjects (e.g., relationship traumas), portraits/sketches (e.g., impressionistic reviews of places, events, and character analysis of people), letters, imagined moments, and dialogues.

Keeping a diary, as Nin said, is a necessity to everyone’s “becoming” as the daily logs put life into deliberate attention and reflection. The diary is an “instrument for living” that should be not only for writers but also for anyone from any walks of life.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: February 8, 2016)