Sunday, April 6, 2014

But What Can Die?

But What Can Die?

The earth is a host 
that murders its guests.

But what can die?

All dying just removes the husk 
over the soul.

All dying unveils
the wonder within. 

           I am halfway through Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and one of the things that stood out to me is how in the constant threat of death, people were not just staying alive, but actually living. He recounted people handing out their serving of bread, despite being starving, people using their free time to hold religious services and pray, rather than get the much needed rest, people leaning on each other, literally and figuratively. He noted that those who survived possessed a spiritual freedom, which was a unique essence that could not be taken away from them. These men believed that despite horrendous suffering, he "could not be replaced, nor his life be repeated". In this, men lived like their lives mattered and lived for a future when "mattering" meant what it used to.  For Frankl, this meant envisioning himself in a lecture hall, discussing his time in the concentration camp in light of his profession, and for this, being known as a famous psychiatrist. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
         For Frankl, that meant that even in the face of immense suffering, no one could suffer for him or in his place. In this realization he found that his existence in the world was definite, he was alive, and his uniqueness would come in the form of how he beared his burden. He acknowledged that while this achievement "will not inspire envy" it was the "accomplishment of my life for which I am most proud".
           Frankl's writing is brilliant, and below I have included one of his passages on Fate (which he believed in and mentioned numerous times in the book):

"When the transport of sick patients for the "rest camp" was organized, my name (that is, my number) was put on the list, since a few doctors were needed. But no one was convinced that the destination was really a rest camp. 

The chief doctor, who had taken a liking to me, told me furtively one evening at quarter to ten, "I have made it known in the orderly room that you can still have your name crossed off the list; you may do so up until ten o'clock." 

I told him that this was not my way; that I had learned to let fate take its course: "I might as well stay with my friends." 

There was a look of pity in his eyes, as if he knew. He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life. 


We were not heading for the gas chambers, and we actually did go to a rest camp. Those who had pitied me remained in a camp where famine was to rage even more fiercely than in our new camp. 


Many weeks later we found out that even in those last hours fate had toyed with us few remaining prisoners. We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken...our friends who thought they were traveling to freedom...had burned to death. 


Does this not bring to mind the story of Death in Teheran? A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, "Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?" "I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here, when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran," said Death." 

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997)

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