advice, blogging, Concentration camp, faith, Holocaust, humanity, life, logotherapy, meaning, mental health, observation, perseverance, psychology, reflections, religion, sermon, survivor, Viktor Frankl, writing
On Feb. 4, I gave this sermon at the UU Church of Medford, MA, based on the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. This was to begin the month’s sermon topic of “Perseverance.” I started with an excerpt from the 1992 Introduction to the book.
“The reader may ask me why I did not try to escape what was in store for me after Hitler had occupied Austria. Let me answer by recalling the following story. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, I received an invitation to come to the American Consulate in Vienna to pick up my immigration visa. My old parents were overjoyed because they expected that I would soon be allowed to leave Austria. I suddenly hesitated, however. The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie? Should I foster my brain child, logotherapy, by emigrating to fertile soil where I could write my books? Or should I concentrate on my duties as a real child, the child of my parents who had to do whatever he could to protect them? I pondered the problem this way and that but could not arrive at a solution; this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for “a hint from Heaven,” as the phrase goes.
“It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Commandments. Eagerly I asked, “Which one is it?” He answered, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.” At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.”– Vienna, 1992
Originally I was asked in October to give a sermon this past November. There were two problems with that: one is that I find myself these days writing at a much slower pace than I used to, so I needed much more time than I was allowed for a deadline; second is that the Soul Matters theme for that month was Abundance—there was no way I could do a service on abundance in any form. I shouldn’t say any form, because I could have given the shortest sermon in history: ask “what does it mean to live a life of abundance?” answer “I have no clue,” and go right to the closing circle. However, I felt that would leave many unsatisfied, so that idea was scrubbed. So I offered to do a sermon during February when the theme was perseverance, which gave me more time and I knew I could go in a number of directions. Now when I made that decision, I was given a late-February Sunday, which was fine. As it turns out there were some small schedule conflicts that Rev. Marta had to resolve, so she asked me if I could do this date in February. I agreed and things were fine. However it was later that I realized that this would be the first Sunday in February, which leads off the new theme for the month. It’s one thing to give a sermon that ties into the themes of the month; it’s another to set the tone for the themes of sermons for the month. That I wasn’t prepared for. As much as I like the spotlight, I’m much more a supporting player who likes to steal the light for a while rather than the lead who has the light always shining on them. It’s a bigger task to try and define the themes while leaving room for others to expand on them, rather than being one who helps push out at the edges. But this is the hand I am dealt, so let’s start with the basics.
What is perseverance? It is defined as steadfastness in doing or achieving something despite the difficulty, obstacles, and/or delay in the goal’s success. It is more than simple persistence and determination, but it helps to have both. In this case it is facing a goal that is hard to reach to begin with, has impediments in the way—all the way—through getting to the goal, yet still moving towards a conclusion nevertheless. In many ways, it doesn’t just require a leap of faith to get to the end, the journey is a leap of faith in itself.
While it may not always seem like it, there are examples of people living lives of perseverance now and in history. For a few weeks I went back and forth trying to decide which would be the best example to use. I could talk about the current situation of Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria and how one third of the population are dealing with little or no power and assistance. Or I could talk about the Black Lives Matter movement as another manifestation of liberation theology from abolition to the Civil Right movement. I thought about speaking of my own personal goals and struggles over the last decade, as personal testimony is important to our faith. I also thought I could talk of Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” as the existential parable to such a life within all the absurdities that abound. These and more are fine examples of persistence despite obstacles, against the odds—and some I may yet address in talks in the future. But I eventually settled on an item that I found early in my college life and feel is a clear and concise example on perseverance: the experience in the Nazi concentration camps as experienced by Dr. Viktor Frankl which he chronicled in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It is historical, resonant, and powerful on its own right, gives a fascinating look into the minds of those who were held and survived the camps, and considering last week’s sermon about the power of laughter, what better way to bookend that service than with existentialism and the Holocaust.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 to Jewish civil servants. He showed an early interest in medicine, wanting to be a doctor at the age of three. In his teens he sparked an interest in philosophy, experimental psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, going so far as to corresponding with Sigmund Freud. It was Freud who helped get one of Frankl’s first article published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis at the age of 16. Frankl slowly realized he had an aptitude for not only diagnosing psychological problems of patients, but to understand what motivates people. In 1928, while still a medical student at the University of Vienna, he started a special program to have him and other psychiatrists counsel troubled high school students. This led to a position at the University Clinic in Vienna after graduation. From 1930 to 1937, he oversaw patients at the “suicide pavilion,” caring for over 3,000 people with suicidal tendencies. His efforts were to help patients make their lives meaningful in the face of depression. This would take extreme symbolism not too much later.
With the Nazi takeover of Austria, Frankl was forbidden from working on any “Aryan” patients because he was Jewish. With his reputation, he was able to become the head of the department of neurology at Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital in Vienna where Jews were allowed admission. This provided him a little protection in the face of ongoing danger and threat of deportation. When the hospital was to be closed, the dangers was realized. In September of 1942, Frankl, his wife, and parents, were arrested and deported to the Thereseinstadt Ghetto, a concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He would eventually be moved to three other camps—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering, and Turkheim, which was part of the Dachau complex—before the camps were liberated.
Soon after liberation, Frankl’s short memoir “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” eventually formed the first portion of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” At almost 100 pages, it is a very fast, but nonetheless potent, read of what went on in the camps. It is one of those books that you can open to literally any page and find a topic worthy of a sermon. While he gave his own experiences at the camps, some description of events were left out, for as he writes “Many accounts have been written about this horror.” In some ways his approach to the events at the camps are from a clinical point of view; he tries to give people a view into the psychology of a concentration camp prisoner. And while part of his purpose is breaking down the three distinct phases of an “inmate’s mental reaction to camp life”—the entry to the camp, the day to day survival, and the points after liberation—this is still the account of concentration camp prisoner Number 119104. As such, much of what happened to him was subject to the whims of officers, Capos, and, to some extent, fate. Frankl describes the almost perfect convergence of all three on the night he was sent to Auschwitz. Men and women were separated into groups, and they had to file past a senior SS officer whom he said “assumed an attitude of careless ease” as he looked over each person, and simply pointed left or right with his finger. He had no idea what this meant, but after a brief inspection Frankl was pointed to the right. Later that evening, he picks up the story:
“I inquired from prisoners who had been there for some time where my colleague and friend had been sent.
“’Was he sent to the left side?’
“’Yes,’ I replied.
“’The you can see him there,’ I was told.
“’Where?’ A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
“’That is where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer.”
It was little games like this, and worse, that the SS and Capos played that often reminded him of the story “Death in Tehran.” With all that—the shock and disgust of imprisonment, then the apathy and forced to live an abnormal routine as if normal—how does one not succumb to the extremity of the concentration camp? This however was Frankl’s gift as he had shown earlier in his career.
When Frankl counseled suicidal patients, he helped them to figure out how to find and hold on to hope. To do this, he had to help each person find their own meaning to life and reconnect with it. This in turn gave them the strength to keep going. His theories contradicted a popular school of psychological thought of the time: Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle. Freud held that man’s primary drive is seeking pleasure and all other motivations are “secondary rationalizations of instinctive drives.” Frankl flipped this concept on its head. He posited that man’s primary drive is a search for meaning in one’s life, which he called the “will to meaning.” This falls in line with the philosophy of existentialism, in that the there is no real meaning in the world except for that which we make of it. While this concept is taken to mean that things happen as they happen—there is no good or evil, just the amorality of nature and therefore suffering is a kind of absurdity as well as a fact of life—Frankl takes it to a different point: that our suffering comes from being disconnected from what meaning life has for us, and man’s real purpose is find that meaning for each person and to work towards making life meaningful. This was his therapeutic technique called Logotherapy. Logo is from the Greek word logos which is “meaning.” In other words, in finding one’s own meaning of life, you find reason to persevere.
So what was Frankl’s own meaning that kept him alive through four concentration camps? Oddly enough it was this theory of logotherapy. When he was detained by the SS, he had a nearly completed manuscript detailing his theories and approaches. This work detailed his analysis of his own work and findings, his theories and new psychological approach, and would eventually form the book The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. It was nearly 300 pages of his life’s work up to that time, as it was seized by camp guards after entering the camps and destroyed. That might have been the end of it had he not felt this to be his own important gift to humanity. He felt so strongly in this that over the next few years, while still in the various camps, he worked to rewrite the manuscript scrawling notes on whatever he could get his hands on. He even claims this burning desire to bring this book to realization is what kept him from succumbing to typhus like so many others. It also got him through some of the day to day hardships in the camps. One particular day after being forced to hike to a work site in the freezing winds with sore legs and feet, lamenting this day and what lay ahead, he had the image of himself standing on a podium in front of an audience lecturing on psychology and philosophy; this helped him at that moment in his depths by rising above the current circumstances and even viewing himself having survived them in the past. This was also a part of his theory: it focuses on the future, or as he puts it “on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his/her future.” His own work and work as a camp doctor helped him survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
So what can we take from his teachings and experiences? How can he teach us to live a life of perseverance? First and foremost, we must realize that while life is random, rough, sometimes tortuous, it has multiple chances to learn more about it and ourselves. We are creatures that search for meaning in life and it seems that we can create that meaning for our lives as well. Frankl says “this meaning is unique and specific in that must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.” Is it the creation of a work of art, or the writing of a great novel? Is it the work one does in life, or helping to raise the life they have created? Any of these can fulfill that meaning to life and keep us as individuals moving forwards. Again as Frankl said, “In a word, each man/woman is questioned by life; they can only answer to life by answering for their own life; to their life they can only respond by being responsible.”
It is also important to know that these desires to achieve can be frustrated. There are always obstacles in the way and each can provide moments of doubt. This is to be expected and in some ways appreciated. One of the ways logotherapy differs from most psychological methods is how it views mental health. Most modes of psychoanalysis trends towards finding homeostasis, or a tensionless mental state; logotherapy acknowledges that a certain degree of tension is needed for mental health, in this case the tension between what a person has already achieved and what they have yet to achieve. Think of a bow and arrow. When a bow has no tension placed upon it, the arrow remains stationary, it may even fall off. To send the arrow flying to an intended target, you must put tension on the string to propel the arrow. That positive tension is what is needed to push you where you need to go. As Frankl says “what man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
This meaning we seek is very individual, very specific at any given moment. What gave us meaning as children may not be the same thing that gives us meaning now. It can change and we have to recognize when such a time happens. It doesn’t mean that what we believed was wrong, but that that what we believed then no longer applies now. If we are beings that strive for meaning, we need new goals to achieve as we go.
I find this very helpful in that the past is not something gone and forgotten, but something that can be built upon. In the camps, Frankl was being marched out in the cold and wind to one of their work details. The prisoner next to him said “If our wives could see us now. I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” At that point Frankl had no idea whether his wife was dead or alive, but that statement brought her image to his mind. Through the march and the detail of the day, he held her image in his mind, even having imaginary conversations with her. It got him through that time, but it also taught him that none of what happened in the camp can take away the love he knew with his wife whether she be alive or not (His wife did in fact die in the Bergen-Belsen camp). On a higher level, he said that at that moment he realized that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.”
While he even admits the prisoners not long for the earth would spend their last days lying in bed often lost in thoughts or memories as that was one of the few escapes from the horrors there, the memories of love can help build one’s inner life to use as a buffer against that which is assailing them. How you look back on past achievements can help understand a person’s state of mind. Think of people who look on their accomplishments as the best they ever could do and tend to live in the past, compared to those who see their deeds and use them to build on and go on to further triumphs (sometimes in different realms). If we have a goal to reach or a meaning to achieve, each milestone in our life is a stepping stone to the next achievement along the path. The past is helpful to know what you are capable of, but the key to hope, stability and perseverance is moving forward.
One of the best lessons I learned from Frankl’s writing and theory is his use of humor. He often uses it as a counter to the neurosis that a patient might currently be suffering from. He called this “paradoxical intent.” For example, when faced with a severe case of writer’s cramp that jeopardized a man’s job, a doctor told him instead of trying to write neat and legibly to try and write in the worst possible scrawl and show everyone how exemplary his scribbling ability was. When the man tried to scrawl, he couldn’t and was freed from his writer’s cramp within 48 hours. I personally had a moment of clarity with this technique many years ago. I was living in a low-income SRO in Everett that didn’t allow visitors to stay overnight, so Sophia could no longer stay with me on weekends. Money was growing tighter, prospects became dimmer, and there was the threat of eviction on my head. I was so very far down that thoughts of suicide were growing. I was on the phone with the Samaritan’s talking to them about my problems. I will point out that I was talking to the Samaritans because the Suicide Hotline told me to call them, and the Suicide Hotline told me to call them because I wasn’t actually partway through my suicide plan for them to get involved. You have no idea what it is like to call the Suicide Hotline and have them tell you “we can’t talk right now.” While on the phone with the Samaritans, the volunteer asked me if I had been reading anything lately. Without missing a beat, I answered him earnestly and honestly, “Lately I’ve been reading Hamlet, which is probably not the best choice considering my current state of mind.” The volunteer said that shows I’m in a better state of mind, and I was able to get off the phone with him not a few minutes later. Without trying, I used the paradoxical intent in its proper form, and it kept those suicidal thoughts at bay for a while.
I highly recommend reading his “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which the publishing arm of the UUA, Beacon Press, now offers in stores and online. Dr. Frankl’s theories helped get him through the Holocaust and they have been helping many of his patients and readers for decades since. Through practice and personal experience, he soundly proved Nietzsche’s statement that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” While he agreed with the existentialists in that suffering can have meaning, in no way did he mean that suffering was necessary to find meaning. He was dedicated to helping people discover what their meaning in life was so they can persevere as he had to. As he himself put it, “as a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological, and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields, I am a survivor of four camps—concentration camps that is—and as such I can also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.” In other words, to persevere is to have a reason to keep moving forward.