In the early 1940s, a thoughtful man in his thirties was experiencing the torment of a Nazi concentration camp. A particular moment in his trial keeps coming to my mind of late.
He was marching to a work site that was far away from his camp. Physically, he recalls, the pain was ceaseless.
“Almost in tears from pain (I had terrible sores on my feet from wearing torn shoes), I limped a few kilometers with our long column of men from the camp to our work site. Very cold, bitter winds struck us.”Man's Search for Meaning, Part I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
In response to the misery, his mind auto-tracked to the pressing concerns of the day — looping through them incessantly.
“I kept thinking,” he goes on, “of the endless little problems of our miserable life. What would there be to eat tonight? If a piece of sausage came as extra ration, should I exchange it for a piece of bread? Should I trade my last cigarette, which was left from a bonus I received a fortnight ago, for a bowl of soup? How could I get a piece of wire to replace the fragment which served as one of my shoelaces? Would I get to our work site in time to join my usual working party or would I have to join another, which might have a brutal foreman? What could I do to get on good terms with the Capo, who could help me to obtain work in camp instead of undertaking this horribly long daily march?”Man's Search for Meaning, Part I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
His thought patterns, trivial and repetitive, bothered him.
“I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things.”Man's Search for Meaning, Part I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
And then: the breakthrough.
“I forced my thought to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”Man's Search for Meaning, Part I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
What Viktor Frankl discovered on that miserable march in that most wretched of places is that even in the midst of such powerlessness, such dehumanization, a great deal of autonomy was nevertheless his.
The human being is a uniquely powerful creature because of her ability to direct attention to whatever she will in any given moment. If Frankl could find the power to live through the redirection of his attention — through focusing on what his life could be for v. the daily trivialities — then you and I can do the same amidst a globe-shifting pandemic.
So, what do we do? What do we do when the news changes hourly — when we can hardly remember what life was like one week ago from this morning?
A few observations:
- Insane times are magnifying glasses. The next days and weeks will show you and I what is in us — and will give us many chances to shape that what. Are we, as Frankl found himself to be, servants of our comfort and security, or are we servants of those we love and live alongside? What I am already seeing in myself and my neighbors is that the answer is both. And so the ways that I direct my attention and my action are critical. Frankl had every excuse to continue focusing on his immediate concerns — but he discovered, counterintuitively, that his will to survive increased dramatically when he zoomed out from the immediate picture.
- Small acts of love will shape us into people who are better when this is over; small acts of selfishness will shape us into people who are worse. You and I must help each other to think now of the people we'd like to be when this is over. Frankl's physical and psychological and emotional pain was unbearable when his sight was set on the day's concerns — yet when his mind shifted to think of the good he could do someday, he became a survivor.
- Keep perspective. Though times like ours do strain our ability to focus on the things that matter most — constantly pulled, instead, to the latest drips of news, hot takes, opportunities, outrages, resources, releases — they are an infinite cry away from the suffering that Frankl knew. One of the best methods for keeping perspective is to turn off the news and open up an old book — Frankl's is an excellent place to start.
You and I don't control whether pubs are open or schools are closed. But we do, and always will, control our focus. This is one of the deeply blessed (and dumbfoundingly consequential) responsibilities of being a human. Who you'll be in a few months shall in part be decided by what you think on today. We become what we do.