Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.”
It should be no surprise that the writings of Dostoyevsky had a profound influence on Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Jewish psychiatrist, as he faced life in Nazi concentration camps. Dostoyevsky endured horrendous suffering in a Siberian labour camp under Czar Nicholas I, as well as many sorrows in his life. Yet both men have enriched us with tremendous vision as we endure the challenges of our lives.
Frankl recounts his reflections from this time in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
One day, camp authorities withheld even the prisoners’ meager ration of food and, to make matters worse, the lights went out. Prisoners were feeling particularly despondent and hostile, so a warden asked Frankl to speak to bolster the other inmates. Frankl made the following points:
First he encouraged his listeners to focus on what they still had. Things that were lost and irreplaceable were actually small in number. If you were still alive, you had reason to hope. What you had gone through could be an asset in the future. Then he quoted Friedrich Nietzsche: “Was mich nicht umbringt, mach mich staerker.” (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.)
Secondly, Frankl encouraged the prisoners to look at the future. Though the prospect of survival didn’t appear to be good, there was still a possibility. Though the chance of liberation in the next few hours or days was unlikely, things could change for the better quite suddenly and unexpectedly.
Then Frankl spoke of the past. “Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.” (What you have lived, no power on earth can take from you.) What we have achieved, the joys we have experienced, the love that we have given and received, even the suffering we have endured, none of this can ever be taken from us.
Next he spoke of the meaningfulness of each of their lives. Even in suffering, life has meaning. The dignity with which they endured would give hope and inspiration to others.
Frankl’s final point built off of this: that sacrifice always has meaning. Even if they died, it would not be for nothing. “Suffering and death were meaningful … of the deepest significance.”
How prophetic these words are as we look to those who were treated so unjustly in the Holocaust, and stand together to make “never again” a reality. They are a hope and an inspiration for a better world.
We also see our sisters and brothers who suffer genocide and injustice today, and we are moved to change the world for the better.
We also look at those who suffer horrible illnesses and strive together to find a cure.
Because suffering is a part of the life of every one of us, we can each listen to the words of Frankl in our moments of despair. Each of us has experienced lying in the dark, alone and despondent. It’s part of the human condition that we need not flee.
There is always reason to hope. Things can get better and often do quite suddenly. Our memories can never be taken away from us. Our lives, and our sufferings, always have meaning. We must never forget that we each have the power to be a tremendous inspiration to ourselves and to others. Keep moving, keep searching, the answers will come.
As we progress through life, we can indeed look back, as Frankl, Dostoyevsky and billions of others have done throughout history, and see past sufferings as a memory. A memory that can no longer hurt us, a memory that has made us who we are, a memory that has meaning, a memory that has touched the lives of others and has moved the world forward in a positive way.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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