7 Words of Hope from a Nazi Death Camp

Man's Search for Meaning

One of the hardest books to read, but one of the most rewarding. I just finished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. During the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million humans like you and me, Frankl was moved from camp to camp, doing forced labor in brutal conditions, threatened constantly with death. Man’s Search for Meaning serves both as a memoir of sorts for his time in concentration and labor camps and as an explanation of how that experience shaped his understanding of psychology.

I want to share with you just a few of the words of hope that I found in Frankl’s book, and I hope you’ll be inspired to read the rest of the book yourself. I can’t state strongly enough the impact that this book has had. No matter how sad its stories, I found it to be one of the most hopeful books I’ve read.

 

1. You matter.

Some days you may question whether there’s any point to your being here. But even in the worst of times, Frankl found that if he and his fellow prisoners considered the impact they might still have on others through their love and their work in the future, they could see just how much each of them did matter.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

2. You get to choose your life’s meaning.

Life is a weird path of twists and turns for each of us, and in comparing ourselves to others or to the ideals we think we’ve learned, we sometimes can’t find how we matter. But Frankl learned that peace can be found in giving up the search for an ultimate meaning, and instead choosing what you will live for.

“Everyone has is 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. . . . Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” – Viktor Frankl

 

3. You can always find joy and fulfillment in LOVE.

Love is a powerful and beautiful thing. For me, this was one of the most meaningful and helpful messages in the book. In a strongly individualistic society, it is hard to grasp the significance and fulfillment in just loving another person. It is okay to live for love.

“My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. . . . A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” – Viktor Frankl

 

4. You can reduce your suffering by observing it objectively. 

It’s hard to imagine suffering worse than prisoners in a concentration camp, but even in such intense suffering, Frankl found relief. He discovered that a simple change in how you observe the present moment can make a bad situation much more bearable. He told a story about when, during a particularly awful day, he started imagining that he was actually retelling his situation in a future psychological lecture. Just this simple mental exercise helped immensely, reminding him that life was bigger than his current hurt, that the present was simply a circumstance that could be observed.

“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. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. . . . What does Spinoza say . . . ‘Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

5. Feelings of joy and suffering are relative. You’re not stuck in your feelings.

This may be a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it and what focus you choose. Frankl observed that the feelings of despair, suffering, frustration, and sadness, weren’t necessarily worse or more overwhelming, in a situation as awful as a concentration camp, than in a less severe circumstance. Humans tend to feel suffering very completely, whether the stressor is big or little. On the one hand, that can mean a small disappointment can be overwhelming. On the other hand, that can mean that you may handle the very worst circumstances much better than you think–which is a hopeful thought. Studies have shown that people who go through awful events often end up much less devastated, at least after a while, than they think they will be. In the same token, feelings of happiness and joy can be extremely strong, even when found in very simple experiences.

“Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.” – Viktor Frankl

 

6. Growing old is going to be okay.

This one sucks. I always hate thinking of growing old, watching my remaining time in this life get shorter and shorter. This book honestly helped with that. Frankl has the most beautiful perspective on this that I’ve heard. It’s a peaceful and hopeful one. I’ll let him speak for himself. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

“At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence. . . . I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

7. You are always free to choose and change.

Another one that is near and dear to my heart, that inspires compassion and hope for myself and for others: His life in Nazi death camps persuaded Frankl that people are not stuck being, thinking, speaking, or acting as they have, or as they’re conditioned to. Sure, the deck may be stacked against you. And on average, people tend to stick with their patterns. But at the end of the day, each of us is free to choose. Free to choose how we will react to the circumstances life brings to us. Free to choose who we are.

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” – Viktor Frankl

 

Guys, it’s hard to communicate how much I loved this book. It wasn’t the most impressively written, it wasn’t the most exciting, it wasn’t the most pleasant. But it was full of the raw experiences of real life in all its nitty gritty weirdness. It was honest. And it was full of hope and inspiration. So full of hope. Real hope.

I hope you’ll read it. And I hope that every day for the rest of your life, you’ll find hope.

Viktor Frankl - Freedom to choose

Life’s little adventures

I’m heading home on an airplane tomorrow morning. Which is a little concerning because I still don’t believe that flying is science. Usually you’d only want to sit in a big metal tube if it were on the ground, because things tend to fall when they are in the air. But out of all the times I’ve flown before, we haven’t fallen out of the sky yet. Thank goodness.

My flight Monday was an adventure. Nothing really happened about it or anything, but as usual, I found myself holding my breath a little when we took off and landed. I actually do love flying, but it also makes me nervous.

What was different about this flight was that I randomly remembered as we were landing that I love flying so much! Even though I get a little nervous. If you don’t take it for granted, flying is an absolutely amazing and thrilling experience. It’s crazy, right?

And once upon a time, when you did something like fly, you’d be wide-eyed in-the-moment absolutely blown away. You’d be on the edge of your seat gazing out the window in awe.

On some flights you can look down in the sunshine at the bright white blanket of clouds below. You can see the weird shapes and patterns. They look so real, like you could reach out and touch them, or lay in them, and they’d be soft, comfortable.

On one flight we dipped below one thick bed of clouds only to find another directly below us. I don’t know the meteorological term for that, but it was so cool! You couldn’t have seen us from above or below, but we weren’t in the clouds, we were in this quiet little gap, miles wide in either direction. I don’t know, maybe that’s not that cool. But it also kind of was.

That brings up a great question. Are all these simple little beauties and adventures in life actually beautiful and adventure worthy? I think that the adult in us would argue that they’re not. That “we’ve seen this so many times.” That “there are more important things.”

Some of us tend in the opposite direction. “This is the most profoundly life-changing and moving thing in my life! I must take pictures and tell everyone that this is the most profoundly life-changing and moving thing in my life. I must explain to others why this is so meaningful and why they also must be moved by it.” #guilty #alsonotguiltybecausethisalsoisaworthwhileactivity

Sometimes the adult in us isn’t wrong. Sometimes circumstances can’t help but distract us from the fascinating world all around us. And sometimes the other kind of adult in us, the one that needs to prove and share why everything is beautiful and epic and work really hard on being happy and spreading happiness–sometimes that adult is also right and helpful and exactly what we all need.

But sometimes–sometimes… maybe even a lot… there are just lots of little adventures all around us that we can just live in. Live in without ignoring, but also live in without analyzing, live in without justifying, live in without documenting, live in without discussing, live in without trying about it. (I know that doesn’t make sense, but read it slowly.)

I honestly think a lot of the adventures all around us lose their enchantment when we try about them… try to analyze, justify, document, discuss. Kind of like my little experience in the clouds that was so much more fulfilling when it was just me with them in the moment, instead of me writing a blog post for you about my thoughts about them. Yeah.

So where is all this rambling going? I guess I hope you’re inspired to do 2 things:

First: Find the adventures all around you. Open your eyes. Look closely.

And second: Just BE in those adventures. Let them be what they are. Just bask.

What adventures have you found today? Don’t tell me. Just enjoy. :)

What is inspiring you this Christmas?

This Christmas I’m thinking a lot about what inspires me. I know a new year is right around the corner. Life is so short, and I want the next year to be just as full of adventure as this one has been. But twice as bold and free.

What do I feel passionate about at this point in my life? What has been meaningful about the last year? And what do I want out of the next year?

A few things come to mind…

 

Looking back at this year I wish that I had helped people more. So I find myself inspired to do more of that in the next year.

I have a friend who recently ran into some homeless people and after chatting for a bit went home and picked up her dinner in the crock pot and brought it back to share with them. I want to be like her when I grow up.

People all share the same humanity deep, deep down, and there are others just like me all around who don’t have what I have. There’s a lot of help needed in this big, messy world. And I want to do that any way I can. I wish I were an expert at answering where to go to help, who to give to, what organizations to volunteer with. I’m not, yet. But I know a few people who are, and I think the world of those people.

This next year I want to be as compassionate as I can be. My best friend tells me that to her, compassion means really seeing people. Not just the easy, surface, first-impression version. Stephen Covey talks about the widespread habit of listening to people through your own auto-biographical filter. What do I think of them? How might they affect me? What should I say to them now? When you see someone trying to work out at the gym, clearly their first time–or run into a mom at the grocery store who can’t seem to control her kids–what story are you telling yourself about them? What stereotypes do you impose on people when you meet them? What motives and purpose do you assign to the people in your life?

Do I ever stop to ask who someone really is underneath what I’ve decided about them? Do I ever make an effort to really understand someone–to really get to know why they are who they are? Do I listen to what they want me to hear about them, see what they wish I could see about them?

I want to see people through the eyes of compassion this year–to see the very best in people and to be honest with myself about how much more there is to everyone in their own joys and struggles than I could ever guess. I want to honor the real person inside of you, even though that means admitting that in all my wisdom and self-confidence, I don’t really know you and can’t be your judge.

 

The most inspiring times this last year were times spent in the incredibly beauty of nature. From the still, quiet swamp ten minutes down the road to the mountains of Utah and Nevada. From the Neskowin ghost forest off the coast of Oregon to the beautiful creeks flowing through the Smoky Mountains. We all get to share the gift of a world full of the kind of beauty that leaves you speechless and breathless. Taking the time to go out and look, listen, and feel nature must be one of the healthiest and happiest things you can ever do.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

 

And in doing and experiencing more of all these things that inspire me, I want to do them more freely, more boldly, and more unapologetically than I ever have before.
I want to live more by the words of my friend, Glenn: “What would you do if you were not afraid?”

 

What inspires you? What happiness and meaning will you find before the next Christmas?

Merry Christmas!

inspire