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)