Meaning and Mental Resilience
In the summer of 1983, I spent a day of strange and stark contrasts, visiting Goethe’s elegant house in Weimar in the morning and Buchenwald concentration camp in the afternoon. On arrival, the visitor is greeted with the motto Arbeit Mach Frei (work makes free) still posted over the gate and it is hard to imagine the harsh conditions endured here especially during bitter winters, as described in Viktor Frankl’s classic book Man’s Search for Meaning.
I myself had an arresting experience while visiting what had been the site of the incinerator. There was a small room with wooden panels, and I wondered if anyone might have left a final poignant message carved on the wall. I crouched down in a corner, and sure enough I was able to decipher three words etched as if by drawing pin into the wood: “Croire, Esperer, Prier” (Believe, Hope, Pray). As you can imagine, this was a deeply touching moment of contact with a past inmate and perhaps no one had ever read these words. I turned round to show another visitor while speaking in French, to which he replied “Ach ja, glauben, hoffen, beten”, which jolted me back to the present.
In a book of lectures entitled Yes to Life in Spite of Everything just published in English for the first time and given in Vienna in the spring of 1946, Frankl reflects on his experiences and especially on meaning in relation to suffering. He argues that “we give life meaning through our actions, but also through loving and, finally, through suffering.” He continues: “how human beings deal with the limitation of their possibilities …. how they behave under these restrictions – the way in which they accept their suffering under such restrictions – in all of this they still remain capable of fulfilling human values.”
Multiple studies have found high levels of psychological distress among young adults during the Covid confinements. One article notes that “A year of lockdowns, mask-wearing, isolation and depriving youngsters from seeing friends and grandparents has caused a surge in kids committing suicide, self-harming and suffering other mental health issues.” I can’t help wondering if this level of distress is in part due to the dominant materialistic story that life is a meaningless accident and that fulfilment comes from consumerism – Frankl himself thought as much when he associated extreme reductionism with nihilism.
Camp survivors were nothing if not resilient, and Frankl remarks that “it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life, it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us – we are the ones who are questioned!” He insists that we always retain the capacity and inner freedom to choose a positive attitude to deprivation and suffering rather than see ourselves as passive victims.