Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
We continue with our quest of unearthing our raison détre, our Ikigai, by learning from the wonderful book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In the last post, we got acquainted with the hellhole called Auschwitz, which was one of the incarceration camps where Frankl was held. We are now in a position to place ourselves in his situation and figure out how and why he understood his reason for being in such wretched, miserable and life-threatening conditions. What follows is my understanding of Frankl’s intent seen through the prism of my life experiences and understanding of our scriptures. You may want to read more than once to follow the thought process I am trying to propagate.
When Frankl arrived at the camp, he had already been working on a book on psychology for many years. As was the rule of the concentration camps, all belongings were taken away from the prisoners. Frankl pleaded with the guards to let him retain the manuscript of his nearly-finished book – a result of many years of effort, but was denied. In a moment, all his painstaking work was snatched away and destroyed. Strangely, it prepared Frankl for the tough life ahead.
The bitter reality about the frailty of life dawned soon once the weak and ill prisoners were segregated from the healthy ones and killed in gas-chambers, immediately on arrival. He introspected and meditated upon a strange fact – two prisoners, in virtually the same living conditions and physical health, went on to behave exactly opposite to each other. One survived the concentration camp and the other either committed suicide or wasted away and died. What was different here? Was it something within the prisoners which made them face the torture and humiliations of the camp stoically? If that was so, what was the anchor for this stoicism – after all, without a finite cause (inner belief) there can’t be an effect (in this case, survival, despite severely adverse conditions). Frankl observed and studied hundreds of fellow-inmates and he realised that most died because they had lost the will to live. He also discerned that once the will to live went, it never came back and the prisoners slowly withered away to inevitable death.
So, it is all within man and very little without which helps him to survive even the most excruciating circumstances. This “something within” is what we are referring to as the raison détre or Ikigai for any human being. It is this “something within” which makes a man work and behave as per his dharma. Dharma here has no religious connotation – it is the quintessence of any being that makes them (or it) what it should be. So, sweetness is the dharma of sugar and heat is the dharma of fire, that’s what makes the sugar taste sweet and fire burn hot. You remove these and sugar and fire cease to be what they should be – sweet and hot, respectively.
What then is the dharma of man? To my mind, it is to always remain connected to the inner consciousness which makes us perform whatever we do in our various roles in life – son/daughter, spouse, parent, employee, boss etc. If we maintain this connection with our soul which has unlimited potential, we avoid the trap of associating ourselves with the limitedness of the equipment which we use to perform anything – the body, mind and intellect (BMI). This connection or anchor with our inner-self is required to be maintained in good times and bad, both of which are our perceptions because we compare the happenings/outcomes to our pre-decided notion about how it should have been? In reality, a result is what it is – inert and neutral and an outcome of cause-and-effect, at an individual or societal level.
Frankl realised that to survive or prosper, a man must focus on the why of life which will make the how a logical outcome. But if there is a void within and one can’t conjure up a why (to live), obviously, there will be no how (to live) and the man will stagnate or die. When Frankl was separated from his family including his parents, brother and pregnant wife, and had his mental child (his book) snatched away, he also felt a void within. He saw no reason to live – the situation was dreary, grim and inhuman, with all the incentives to die rather than survive. As he saw his fellow prisoners give it all up, he decided to give himself some inner anchor which would help him keep afloat amidst the ocean of torture and death.
He imagined meeting his wife after he was released (Frankl was unaware that his wife had been killed in another concentration camp), writing and speaking on his psychological theory (it was still nebulous with no specific name) and rich visions of enjoying the beauty of nature and art with his family. He had the freedom to choose exactly what he wanted to, so far as his thoughts were concerned, and no SS trooper could take that away from him. He was working on his within since that was all which he could control, the external conditions being outside his control. This freedom to choose also made his suffering optional – despite the pain which was being caused by the Nazis, he could decide whether he wanted to suffer or not. We all will do well to remember it in life – pain is inevitable (it is part of the ebb and flow of life) but suffering (what you feel or perceive from within) is optional.
At every moment life asks many questions of us – some good and some not so good. We must remember that it is life which is asking us these questions and not the other way round and hence we have to provide the answers. If the answers are aligned to our Dharma, our raison détre, our Ikigai, life will be in harmony. If, however, we don’t have an inner anchor, we will only keep reacting to the situations or the questions life throws at us – in the form of people, situations, events etc. It is not important how life treats us but rather how we treat life, being anchored to our raison détre. It ultimately boils down to taking full responsibility for anything, good or bad, which happens in our life or the lives of people around us. Interestingly, “Responsibility” could be broken down into “Response+Ability”. If we retain our ability to respond to the questions of life, we will never find the questions “Out of Syllabus”.
Let me put forward a very esoteric concept regarding taking responsibility. We all understand that we remain responsible for what happens in our lives, though even this stretches your imagination a bit. If you have worked really hard throughout the year in your organisation, you are bound to look forward to a good annual appraisal and a salary raise. What if your boss gives you a lukewarm appraisal and zero raise in salary? How are you responsible for this unpleasant outcome despite your best efforts? Well, any outcome in life is borne out of interactions between beings who have different Prakriti (basic nature) and every interaction has the potential to bring forth a multitude of outcomes.
The boss may be a temperamental person who wrote your appraisal on the day he had a massive fight with his wife or his child failed a major exam. Or, the expectations of the boss may have been way higher than you could deliver – your best (or that’s what you considered it to be) was not good enough for your boss. Or, the CEO of your organisation had directed your boss to give a salary raise to only the top 10% of your office and you happened to be the person just outside that limit. If the raise was to be given to top 10.5% of the employees, your name would have figured in that coveted list.
You see there are a multitude of variables which bring about any outcome despite the same/similar effort by you in any endeavour/relationship. Now, what are the options before you? Either you sulk, lose interest in your job, and bring about an even worse outcome – maybe even being fired from your job. Alternatively, you choose to assume full responsibility for what happened to you and correct the only thing which is in your control – your future actions. Frankl did exactly the same – he did not blame life for putting him in such a dreadful situation but instead accepted the situation and tried to make the best of it. His inner anchor helped him in doing that.
Let’s extend this responsibility even further. You are driving to your office in your car maintaining your lane and within laid down speed limits. You stop at a traffic red light and start again once the light turns green. You are being a good citizen who follows responsible road etiquette. A car jumps the red light from the right side of the intersection and bangs into your car – an accident has occurred for which this rash, negligent driver is responsible. You bear no responsibility for this accident, right?
Wrong – you have at least partial responsibility for this accident. You started from your home at a particular time, along a particular route, at a particular speed, which resulted in you meeting this rash driver at that intersection, at that precise time when he was jumping the red light. Who was responsible for your part of the accident – for you being there on that intersection at that precise instant? Obviously you alone.
It gets even better hereafter. That rash driver is a product of our system – he has been brought up by his parents in a particular manner, he has been associating with a particular type of people in his lifetime, someone has given him a driving license thus certifying him fit to drive, someone in the past may have allowed him to get away lightly despite similar transgressions, the causes could be endless leading to this unfortunate effect (the accident). You are very much part of society, in fact, society is nothing but a conglomeration of people like you and me. If that driver (rash and irresponsible) is indeed a product of our society, a system, which we have ourselves created, how can we, which includes you as well, not be responsible?
The Nazi party originated from German society, which had a particular set of circumstances which were ripe for this evil to be born and nurtured. Hitler came to power in a democratic society through a proper election. He managed to galvanise the people behind a cause which threatened the rest of the world, but was apparently good for Germany. The Nazis, a miniscule percentage of the German population, managed to wreak havoc on humanity because the majority of Germans remained silent. The world at large allowed Hitler to build up his power and military with impunity, without any initial tangible actions. Who then was responsible for what happened at Auschwitz or similar concentration and extermination camps? Was Frankl himself, being a part of the silent German majority, not responsible for what was happening to him? He was and he understood this fact and decided to do what he could – holding his end of the bargain. He evolved a fascinating psychological theory, called Logotherapy, and that will be the subject of our next post.
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