Life’s meaning
May 7th, 2020 at 12:23 pm
Life’s meaning

by Navid Saleh;

What is the meaning of my life? You or I may ask this question often. It may be that we do not have time to ponder on such a metaphysical question or it may be that you have found an answer to it already (which likely will be rare to be a singular answer that stays with you throughout your life).

But imagine a life in utter despair. Imagine someone whose world is filled with suffering, “like gas that fills up a confined space”. How does such a soul find “meaning’ in his/her life? Can there be a meaning for this soul in such a condition? A visionary neurologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in Auschwitz’s concentration camp (and in three other camps). He gives a first-hand account of his time spent there. Every adult should read this account.

We must revisit the miseries and sufferings endured by many in the past in order to appreciate the freedom that we possess today and be thankful for the life that we lead. I cannot do justice to the exquisite but exceptionally grim description that Dr. Frankl gives of his grueling journey in Auschwitz and thereafter.

However, I believe that it is worthwhile to recall a few stories from his book.

Is there any?

Dr. Frankl and his prison mates started to experience the horror of the camp from hour-1 of their entry to Auschwitz. During the registration process, the prisoners underwent a physical and psychological torment. Each prisoner had to disrobe, wash their bodies, and shave off every bit of human hair from his or her body. The goal was to strip off any belonging that one might have; including one’s name, past history (one’s profession, achievements, family affiliation), possession (watch, jewelry, shoes, clothing), everything.

He or she became a number with no name or identity. A number that was tattooed on his or her arm and imprinted on the rag cloth or coat that was worn. They became nobodies. They were all reminded like Yanek Gruener was, a 10-year old boy in Alan Gratz’s story, Prisoner B-3087: “From now on, you have no name, no personality, no family, no friends…Nothing to identify you, nothing to care about. Not if you want to survive. You must be anonymous.”

This is no easy feat for anyone. Imagine. All that you have, all possessions, all relationships, including your identity, even your name has to be given up. How can that feel? As Dr. Frankl describes that it was just the beginning. The foremen, guards, and kapos of Auschwitz lined up torture, starvation, and strenuous labor for them in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. They were forced to put in inhuman effort through a physical activity, in extreme heat or in unbearable winter. At the end of the day each of them was offered a 5 oz bread and sometimes, a few spoons-full of watered-down soup. Who can survive such conditions?

The next day they had the same or worse in store for them. And the same the next day. This cycle kept on repeating itself. There was no ceasing of this torture. Many gave up. When they became a muselmann, they were shipped off to a nearby camp, where they were put in gas chambers and the corpse were burnt in a crematorium. Dr. Frankl describes the process of selection for the gas chamber, which will give you goosebumps.

The prison warden stood in front of an assembly line (of prisoners) and moved his finger to the left (for a trip to the gas chamber, meaning death) or right (for staying back at the camp, meaning survival) and decided the fate of the prisoners.

Is it a promise!

It reminds me of the gothic facade of Notre Dame cathedral, where heaven is shown to the right of Christ and hell to his left. A simple tilt of a finger, may be in a whim, sealed someone’s fate. The grotesque execution in the gas chambers loomed dark above Bavaria, as a strange smell of burnt flesh blew across towns with the smoke that bellowed from the crematorium.

You probably are thinking that those who were left behind, those who got the warden’s nod to stay, were lucky. They survived. Were they indeed lucky?

The next morning began with the same torture. It was a repetition of arduous yesterday and tomorrow looked to be no different. How can someone survive such torment? How can “hope” or “meaning” of life be conceived in such a circumstance?

Is this situation any different than that suffered by many during Bangladesh’s liberation war? The women who were imprisoned, got abused, the men who were locked up, were tortured and killed.

Genocide ran rampant.

Three million got killed in only nine months and many millions were raped while countless were wounded. Millions of families in Bangladesh lost someone in the war. How can anyone in such hopeless eternal despair spend the next hour, let alone the next day?

What Frankl told his fellow camp mates is to find a “meaning” for their lives. It can be a memory of someone’s child, or the longing to embrace one’s wife or lover, or the thought of completing some unfinished work.

They needed something to grip onto. A straw of hope to wade across the ocean of suffering. In his immaculate description, Dr. Frankl analyzes the psyche of a concentration camp prisoner.

He identifies that there was somehow, hope, there were dreams, and there was the breath of life that blew down in the grim crowded camp huts during the quiet desperate nights in Auschwitz. How can someone see light in such darkness? Is it not audacious to ask someone to find meaning in his/her life? Was it not similar for a raped Bangladeshi woman or a tortured captive in 1971? How can we expect any optimism in such situations?

Dr. Frankl states that such optimism is necessary for survival. These thoughts and constructed hopes were the only way to spend the next day in “hell”.

He uses his experience and those of his fellow mates to develop a therapeutic solution for neurosis patients. He named it “logotherapy”. Logos is the Latin word for “meaning”. Dr. Frankl used “meaning” as a therapy to break the vicious cycle of neurosis. Logotherapy has become one of the most dominant psychotherapies in the world ever since.

What I am advocating is to look for meaning in our lives. I am certain that you all experience dull days, when life appears to be meaningless. If we allow such thoughts to persist, these can lead to anxiety, and then depression. If the depression becomes extreme, it results in an “existential vacuum” (complete loss of identity).

Any one of us can suffer from such a condition. But, how can we avoid getting sucked into this spiral? How can we find meaning in our lives? Dr. Frankl states that there are three ways that we can attempt to find meaning: through achievements or successes, through experiences, and through suffering.

The first one is rather straight forward. Successes propel people toward more success in a self-contained loop. “Through experience” is a bit more complicated. It is like experiencing someone’s strife or challenges that can allow us to find meaning in our own lives; may be by appreciating what we have or may be by trying to solving theirs.

Experience can be the manifestation of love (e.g., between two adults or an adult and a child). The third one, i.e., “through suffering”, is baffling to me. I cannot imagine how and what meaning Dr. Frankl or his camp mates could glean from their sufferings in Auschwitz.

To me, their condition was perilous. How can they find meaning of human triumph in such a predicament? I have heard this theory of “meaning in suffering” in religious sayings and maxims.

Is it somehow sufferings?

I can never fathom it. May be, in suffering, we can remind ourselves, that better and brighter days are ahead of us. As Dr. Frankl reminded his fellow camp mates of this quote from Otto Bismarck: “Life is like a visit to a dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.”

May be in suffering, we need to find a meaning or culminating purpose. May be, we need to look back at our past and appreciate the achievements that we have made, the love that we have loved, and the pain and suffering that we have endured. That would give us courage to fight through the next battle in life.

Let us all bask in this optimism for tomorrow. We must empathize with those who are suffering, set goals to impact humanity positively, and strive to be a better human in the coming day.

As Dr. Frankl wisely states: “Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of, and since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”

(Ideas partly borrowed from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and from Alan Gratz’s Prisoner B-3087): (February 27, 2020; Austin, TX).

Dr. Navid Saleh is an Associate Professor at Civil Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, USA