As a teacher, I’m always open to expanding and improving my program. For years, I’ve studied the Holocaust as part of my Social Justice 12 course. This year, I gave my students more choice in studying the topic. It resulted in me working with a group of young people and rediscovering one of most amazing books I’ve ever read.
Man’s Search for Meaning by psychiatrist and death camp survivor Viktor Frankl is a deep and profound book not typically read by high school students. I decided to allow my students to choose it, however, if they were curious and felt up to the challenge. Those who picked this book embarked on a great voyage.
I couldn’t withhold my enthusiasm for the book. As teachers, we’re not immune to our biases, positive and negative. In this case, my viewpoint seemed to have a positive influence on my students.
I told my students that I didn’t expect them to understand the deeper concepts of the book on their first reading. I’ve read the book many times and each time I understand things that I didn’t previously notice. For example, Frankl tells us that the last and greatest human freedom is the freedom to choose our own thoughts, to choose how we will respond to any given situation.
In my late teens and early 20s, I took this to mean that those in difficult situations could still be free, even if they lived under oppressive dictators. While this is true, I have to admit my viewpoint was somewhat arrogant and judgmental.
The more profound meaning is, of course, that as we face challenging and difficult situations, we can make a paradigm shift. We can stand back and look at the situation. Instead of simply reacting, we can choose the response that gives us the greatest peace.
I didn’t understand what Frankl meant when I was younger because I didn’t have the life experience to relate to it. Life had been good to me. The challenges I faced to that point were fairly mundane.
What I discovered from my students, however, was that a number of them could relate to what Frankl was saying. They had faced, or were facing, profound challenges.
Frankl’s memoir describes life in Nazi death camps and offers lessons for spiritual survival. Frankl spent much of the Second World War in four camps, including Auschwitz. He survived but his pregnant wife, parents and brother all died.
Although none of us have any idea what it’s like to suffer from the cold, starvation, indignity and fear of a concentration camp, we can relate to suffering from mistreatment on many levels. We realize that if Frankl and other prisoners could choose not to embrace the lies that were screamed at them in the camps, if they could choose not to become animals even though they were being treated worse than animals, we too can choose to believe in ourselves and our futures. We too can choose to love. We too can choose to embrace our inner greatness.
There’s a reason this book has been so influential, translated into 24 languages and sold more than 10 million copies.
Some of my students will need to read Man’s Search for Meaning a number of times, as I have. Others who didn’t choose to read it this year will pick it up later in life. Others will find commentaries based on Frankl’s teachings. In each case, I expect they will be enriched.
Facing challenges and searching for meaning are part of life’s journey. By making a concession for my students, not only did I give them a resource for their journey, I rediscovered the most valuable lessons myself.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.