For the last five years, Man’s Search for Meaning has been on my to-read list. For the last few weeks, with an increase in anxiety levels for the future and pondering the meaning and purpose of my existence, I decided to finally open the pages of this book by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.
Before World War II, Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist. He was a respected man in his community. He was also Jewish living in a part of the world that was more interested in his ethnicity than in who he was as a person. He was removed from his home in Vienna in 1942 and spent his next three years in a several different concentration camps. All his possessions, his work, and even his name was taken away from him. He, like his fellow prisoners, was identified by a number. His life became one of forced labor with only a meager ration of bread and watered-down broth for sustenance.
So far, this book (I’m only halfway through) has been remarkable, but there has been one passage that has been exceptionally memorable. Frankl was asked to give words of encouragement to his fellow prisoners. In his speech, he spoke of the suffering they had endured. But despite this suffering they still had reason to hope. Despite what they had been through and what they were reduced to, there was still meaning for their lives. I have read his speech over and over and was left with one overwhelming thought. No matter what their conditions, no matter what tortures the guards inflicted on their bodies, they still had the power of their minds. And their minds could not be touched unless they allowed them to be touched.
If you lay violent hands on me, you’ll have my body, but my mind will remain on Stilpo.*Zeno
Throughout history, man has always tried to rule over his fellow beings. They have found ways to exert ownership over those they deemed to be inferior. And though they may have found success in owning the bodies of others, they could never own their minds. Our minds belong to us, and they are unable to be owned by another, unless we allow them to. It reminds me of another philosopher who was once a slave. Epictetus said, “Any person capable of angering you becomes your master. They can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by them.” For most of his life, Epictetus did not own his own body. But for his whole life, he owned his mind.
Many of us will never have to endure the suffering Frankl endured in the concentration camps. But in our own ways, we are all fighting a hard battle [link]. Our suffering may be unjust, but it has meaning. It is up to us to not lose hope and remember that what does not kill us will make us stronger (Nietzsche). We cannot always control what happens to our bodies, but we can always control our minds.
*Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was influenced by the Greek philosopher Stilpo (360-280 BC)