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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

430 It is ''essential to keep practicing the art of living, even in a concentration camp''

Day 430: May 20th, 2021

It is ''essential to keep practicing the art of living,

even in a concentration camp''

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which we can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: Our salvation is through love and in love."

Love is at the heart of Viktor Frankl's philosophy of life. I can't imagine a more battered life than Frankl's and it astounds me that he could, after all his suffering, talk about love.

Frankl was a psychiatrist and philosopher whose mother, father, brother and wife were killed in Nazi concentration camps. He lost everything that could be taken from a prisoner, except 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.'' And from this suffering and loss, he chose to love - to practice the art of living.

I have often thought of how I would relate to such suffering and brutality. I've never experienced this kind of horror - not even close. But my friends in El Salvador have... and they continue to endure and live. Ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, The Congo, Myanmar and the people of Palestine are suffering today. I was just on a call with several Palestinians and they endure. They have no choice but to live and to support others in their time of horror. They have made a decision to live.

"Every day in the camps prisoners had moral choices to make about whether to submit internally to those in power who threatened to rob them of their inner self and their freedom. It was the way a prisoner resolved those choices, he said, that made the difference." - Viktor Frankl

In his book ''Man's Search for Meaning,'' Dr. Frankl relates that even at Auschwitz some prisoners were able to discover meaning in their lives -- if only in helping one another through the day -- and that those discoveries were what gave them the will and strength to endure.

Prisoners taught one another not to talk about food where starvation was a daily threat, to hide a crust of bread in a pocket to stretch out the nourishment. They were urged to joke, sing, take mental photographs of sunsets, and, most importantly, to replay valued thoughts and memories.

Dr. Frankl said it was ''essential to keep practicing the art of living, even in a concentration camp.''

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of their personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless she loves him. By this love she is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, see that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by their love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making them aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

We can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the people who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person 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."

"Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of them—mentally and spiritually. They may retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful."

We do not face the terror of the camps. But we do face the challenge of living each day in a conscientious, loving way with open hearts. We pray that we may have the courage to awaken to greater truth, greater humility, and greater care for one another. May we place our hope in what matters and what lasts, trusting in the eternal presence and love of the Spirit whom we welcome this Sunday in our Pentecost celebration.

We open our hearts for the healing of our suffering world.

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