Thursday, 27 January 2011

Taking hope from horror

I have just finished reading Victor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning'. It is a remarkable book, written by a remarkable man, which has sold over 9 million copies since its publication in 1946.

Victor was a survivor of the Nazi death camps. His family wife, father and mother  were murdered there. They were imprisoned, and ultimately killed, for no reason other than being Jewish.

The horrors of Victor's experience, and those of other Holocaust victims, are difficult to read. But even more remarkable than his suffering, was Victor's reaction to it.

His book takes us through his efforts of comprehending what appears to be incomprehensible. And through his unflinchingly unsentimental, yet achingly compassionate narrative, he addresses the deepest questions - what is the meaning of suffering, how is it possible to find hope in the bleakest of circumstances?

As a busy psychotherapist before his arrest Victor was very alive to the reality of the human condition, and the emotional distress it can bring. But he believed that meaning could be found, even in the most desperate circumstances, and once that was acknowledged, hope followed.

He wrote: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.”

Victor's attitude in his desperate circumstances, was to refuse to let the Nazi's deny his humanity, whether by seeing his fellow prisoners - and even his guards - as human being too, not dehumanised entities, or by snatching some beauty from nature, or thinking lovingly of his wife and family. In so doing, he assisted and protected his own humanity, while defying those who sought to deny it.

The power of his work is not only that it documents an important time in history, but that his ideas give hope to people in the here and now, from the most mundane personal situations to what appear intractable political issues. As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Victor's life is testimony to the power of our innate spiritual good to struggle over come those forces who seek to quench it.