The Power to Choose One's Own Way

The Power to Choose One's Own Way

25 Minute Read

The post below is influenced by psychologist Viktor Frankl. For the sake of clarity and respect towards the original book these ideas were drawn from, "Man's Search for Meaning", the forward accounts will be presented in first person, much as like Dr. Frankl has written them. 

We historians, those of us who have drifted through the tales told by our history teachers in middle school, often have a baseline understanding of what has transpired in the darkest moments of the past. However, those of whom who have lived such tales, who breathe the transcribed pages to life, they offer a far more personal account of living during such despairing moments. Frankl is no different. Here he offers a story: one of eternal loss, where hopelessness and sorrow dominate the discourses of life. But also one of unfathomable triumph in the face of fatalistic circumstances. 

A Symptom of Apathy

Apathy was the main symptom of life in a concentration camp. When one is stripped bare to the bone: personality and pleasure thrown to the morgue, the human being really becomes a simplistic animal. The reality of this inescapable situation dimmed and the essential mechanism of self-defense set in; all efforts and emotions become one centered on the task of self-preservation. After all, in the life of a camp prisoner, a friend just becomes another drain on the food source, a significant burden that one would need to devote energy to managing. Shock had already run its course, and apathy was slowly beginning to creep in. The individual was forced to regress to a primitive level in his mental life. The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find refuge from the emptiness, desolation, and spiritual poverty of his existence by letting him escape to his past.  To combat the cruelty of the situation around him, man would retreat into his dreams, a solace that would be afforded to him even in his nightmares.

"I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as sad as the reality of camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall to him."

It also follows that very trifling things can cause the greatest of joys. There was particularly one guard, who when serving our daily ladle of soup, refused to play favorites. He would dip the ladle the exact same way for every prisoner. Gracious I was when I saw that it was him who was serving our daily portions. And how we envied those of us who had the opportunity to work in the factories. During the winter, those who were tasked with the responsibility of field work often saw hypothermia set in. Many did not live to see noon. When I heard my number selected to go work in the factories, I was extremely grateful that God had spared me another day to live. Another instance was when our group was shipped from Auschwitz to another camp. I remember approaching the intersection, one that determined whether or not we were going to a camp with a chimney or one without, all the prisoners sat in silence, breathing heavily and waiting for the impending decision that would seal our fates. As the train veered left, the entire carriage let out a joyous cheer; we were only going towards a work camp.

[Survivors of the Dachau concentration camp demonstrate the operation of the crematorium by pushing a corpse into one of the ovens. Dachau, Germany, April 29-May 10, 1945.]

[Survivors of the Dachau concentration camp demonstrate the operation of the crematorium by pushing a corpse into one of the ovens. Dachau, Germany, April 29-May 10, 1945.]

Self-preservation became the only mode of struggle. It forced one to sacrifice everything to move this goal forward. The character of a man in these conditions became constrained in a mental turmoil, one that sought to threaten all the principles and values one holds, and throw the mind into chaos. In a world that no longer recognized the value of human life and of human dignity, what becomes of us creatures? How does man reconcile the immediate transition of his personal identity to that of a numerical subject? The inevitable transformation that begins to set in robs man of his will; he becomes an object to be exterminated once his utility was squeezed to the last drop. Those who struggled to save the last of their self-respect and agency found themselves lost as an individual, stuck between maintaining the autonomy of spirit while being dangled clumsily below strings. For the man who lost his inner freedom and personal value saw his existence descend to the level of a herded sheep.

"Just like sheep that crowd timidly into the center of a herd, each of us tried to get into the middle of our formations. That gave one a better chance of avoiding the blows of guards who were marching on either side and to the front and rear of the column. The central position had added advantage of affording protection against the bitter winds. It was, therefore, in an attempt to save one's own skin that one literally tried to submerge into the crowd. This was done automatically but other times it was a very conscious effort on our part - in conformity with one of the camp's most imperative laws of self-preservation: avoid attracting the attention of the SS."

I could not care less of the corpses rotting with lice and maggots that lie beneath me when sleeping. I was too busy concentrating on the steps of passing guards, breathing relief when they did not stop suddenly and beat me senseless. There was so little value placed on human life, and that contributed to the all around apathy in the hopelessness of our situation. The prevalence of this mentality was highlighted especially when a convoy of sick men was arranged:

"We were given the emaciated bodies of prisoners, drawn on two wheel carts, which we had to push through snow storms to other camps. If one sick man died before the cart left, he was thrown on anyway! No worries, the list just needs to be updated."

The list was the only thing that mattered. A man counted because of his prison number. Life was completely dependent on the moods of guards, masters of our fates, and this made them even less human than the circumstances warranted. Besides suffering from the physical consequences of typhus and malnutrition, there were developments in the form of certain complexes. You see, the majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been somebody, a name with a set of irrefutable unique characteristics. Our identities which had been an incredibly central part of us now were treated like complete nonentities. While consciously unaware, the prisoner found himself feeling utterly degraded and those prisoners who took up more prominent roles in the camp (cook, storekeepers) suddenly became infatuated with delusions of grandeur. This coincided with their need to abuse and dominate lesser prisoners whenever the chance presented itself. It was a way prisoners could pretend to keep their self importance and identity, through the denigration of those lesser.

The Sovereignty of the Human Spirit

In attempting the psychological presentation of the inmate, and recounting the experiences during camp life, it would seem as if the human being was completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings. The veil to the independence and freedom brandished by humanity only seem to ring true when the situation affords itself to. For when men become the playthings of fate, stripped bare to the bone of depth and consciousness, that eternal cry of individuality ceases to make itself known.

"But what of human liberty? What of personality and principle? Is there no spiritual freedom that the individual can achieve that would not derive from his powerless position? Is the human being nothing but just the product of biological, psychological, and sociological forces? "

The forces that govern the halls of man, when pitted against the singular inescapable world of the concentration camp, is man unable to escape from the influences of his surroundings? Is this the inevitable truth that awaits us all? That no matter who we choose to be, when the curtain eventually dawns and we are forced into a position that would challenge every fiber of our being, the fatalistic view is that we do not keep who we are, only what the situation tells us to be? Would we all not succumb to this delirium, as slaves to such creatures?

"Alas, we can derive the answers to these questions also from our experiences in the concentration camp. The experiences of camp show that man does have a choice of action. There are enough examples often of a heroic nature, which proved that inescapable apathy can be overcome and repressed. Man can preserve a vestige of himself, of spiritual freedom and independence of mind even in such conditions of physical stress."

"We prisoners of these camps can still remember the men that walked bravely through our huts, comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few and far between, but they offer the most sufficient proof that EVERYTHING can be taken from man but one thing: the greatest of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances. To CHOOSE one's way."

Everyday there is a choice. A decision that determined whether or not you would submit to the powers that threatened to rob you of your very self. 

These decisions don't just permeate inside the barbed wire fences of a death camp, but they are an inherent choice of action that individuals face everyday. The choice to give up on your studies, the choice to go to the gym, the choice to get out of the bed even when life seems meaningless. When compared to the denigration experienced during life in a concentration camp, these choices may seem insignificant, however, everywhere man is confronted with the decision to wither in the face of adversity or adopt a mindset conducive to affirmation and action. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to choose how we respond to a situation; the power does not lie with the deterministic causes of nature, but with one’s ability to supersede these biological proclivities, to make a conscious choice: what kind of person am I going to be?

For those who continually compare to the lives of other men, I ask, do you think life so simple that each individual holds the same key towards unlocking the door? One of the greatest characteristics of the human condition lies in the unique perspective each individual holds. We do not choose our sufferings and experiences; they are dealt together in our lives, each string woven differently than the other. Do not choose to find meaning in the endeavors of other men, but to ask oneself: what does the good life entail for me? 

To put the question in general terms would be to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. 

Man approaches life in different ways. An action life gives individuals meaning in the pursuit of a tangible goal, often in the values of creative work. A passive approach to life affords man the opportunity to obtain fulfillment through experience such as art, beauty or nature. But when both active and passive opportunities are stripped from an individual, when the possibility of pleasure and satisfaction lay barren at the crossroads for man, there is but one more path man can take: namely, in man's attitude towards his existence. If there is meaning at life at all, there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition. Ask yourselves this: the person you are today and who you will become in the future, are you not a culmination, an aggregate of the totality of your experiences? Of which, undoubtedly has felt great tragedy but also great joy. You cannot wish for your sufferings to go away. One must not only acknowledge the ineradicability of suffering, but the vital role it plays in the development of the individual. You would not be who you are today without it.

For the inmates in concentration camps, finding value in suffering was a necessary part of strengthening the spirit, in the face of dire hopeless circumstance. If you are worthy to be in your life at all, surely you must be worthy of your sufferings too? In the situations where the course of fate cannot be changed, here lies the rare opportunity in man to accept his fate and his sufferings. At these very crossroads, it is up to him to decide whether or not in the bitter fight for self preservation, he may forget his human dignity and revert to no more than an animal, or to make use of the values that a difficult situation may afford him. This path decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

Such paths exemplify the types of men in life. Those who refused to see their experiences as a test of inner strength, one that allowed man to rise beyond his spiritual footholds. often raged perniciously against their situation. These men, filled with malice and ill contempt sufficed to retreat from the responsibilities afforded to them. They preferred to shut their eyes, to live eternally in the past, to let their surroundings prevail and who can blame them? It is a difficult battle to engage in, but ultimately one that can be overcome. Many give in before even trying.

The 'Y'

It is often here that a quote from Nietzsche resonates profoundly well: 

"He who has a why can bear almost any how."

In the course of human history, man has experienced the greatest atrocities ever conceived. And still there are those, in the face of insurmountable circumstances, that have taken the challenge: a heroic endeavor of endurance, an arduous struggle akin to Atlas bearing the skies upon his shoulders. Wherever there is life, there is an opportunity to promulgate meaning within it, to discover an aim that sustains one through the darkest storms and allows one to traverse the deepest chasms. Those who saw no more sense to life and no purpose to carrying on, provide an implicit commentary: that they could not find the 'why' of the struggle they have to bear. Such declarations often are less telling of the character of the individual, but more representative of the internal struggle that has failed to provide anything fulfilling and substantial. For those who lose the will to carry on often cite that life has nothing more to give to them. How utterly incognizant one has to be to come up with that justification to their situation! To embolden the individual requires the repudiation of such an ideal, a fundamental change to one's approach to life. It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

"We need to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead to think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life daily and hourly. Life ultimately means the accepting the responsibility to find the right answers to its problem and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."

Life is not vague and abstract, but something tangible and concentrate. They form the destiny of man, a puzzle uniquely built for each individual to solve. Sometimes life requires an active approach to solving its complexities, other times it may be distinguished by passive contemplation and introspection. And then there will be times where fate forces one to dance to its tune. When faced in a hopeless situation, man will have to accept his suffering knowingly, acknowledging that this singular struggle is up to him to conquer alone. There is no relief or mitigation for him, nor should he want there to be. For it is this uniquely human experience, this opportunity for one to valiantly bear their burden no matter how difficult it presents itself, which allows you to take the responsibility that life sets out for you. And this challenge, the greatest challenge of all, what can you do, but smile at this inevitable circumstance, and welcome to with open arms.


Viktor Emil Frankl

was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was founder of logo therapy, which is a form of existential analysis. His best-selling book Man's Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living. Frankl became one of the key figures in existential therapy, and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists. (wikipedia)

“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. You will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

"In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves."