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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: Viktor Frankl

How about an old book for today, though new to me--a reading from the only book shelved in the "self-help" area that has ever drawn me. It is also the only book I read this year that made me weep.

Flap copy: Man's Search for Meaning has riveted generations of readers with its description of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 psychiatrist Viktor Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the stories of his many patients, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.

Born in Vienna in 1905, Viktor E. Frankl earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. He published more than thirty books on theoretical and clinical psychology and served as a visiting professor and lecturer at Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere. Frankl died in 1997.

* * *

"Can't you hurry up, you pigs?" Soon we had resumed the previous day's positions in the ditch. The frozen ground cracked under the point of the pickaxes, and sparks flew. The men were silent, their brains numb.

My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing--which I have learned well by now. Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

* * *

Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious "Yes" in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. "Et lux in tenebris lucet"--and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

* * *

There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously." Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree," she said to me. I was startled and didn't know quite how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. "Yes." What did it say to her? She answered, "it said to me, 'I am here--I am here--I am life, eternal life.'"


  1. I too love that book. It is among the most important I know.

  2. I love his spirit and how he transcends his place like a diamond burning in a dung heap.

    You know the story in the preface about how he tries to decide whether to go to America and leave his parents behind or to stay and suffer with them? I like that so much. He is in a place where he longs for a sign. His father has found and brought home a fragment of marble from the Ten Commandments in the synagogue, now burned. Frankl asks which commandment the single letter on the marble is from. It is "Honor thy father and mother that thy days may be long upon the land."

    He stays.

  3. I love the part where he finds a fragment of a prayer in his pocket, just when he is about to give up.

  4. Oh, I remember that one--when he had to turn in his clothes with his precious manuscript in the pocket, and he got a dirty old rag to put on with the prayer in the pocket.

  5. I am reading this book for the first time right now, as prep for teaching Night by Elie Wiesel again to my high school sophomores. Frankl brings such an open heart to his writing, very courageous in his willingness to consider what his suffering means, or to consider that any meaning could be experienced within it. Wiesel is more difficult to read, in some ways, because he is unable to consider meaning at the point in which he was writing. The experiences are raw and impossible. I am grateful to have encountered Frankl's book at this stage, and I appreciate that you highlighted it here. This is a season when people who are suffering sometimes feel as if they have to run for cover...when, in fact, we find that the purpose of Christmas is all about those who are running for cover, and God comes to crouch beside us in the cold and dark.

  6. Robbi--

    Pocketful of miracles...


    I do love his "yes" and his insistence that all things and events can be turned toward meaning.

    And yes, that is a Christian idea--more an Easter idea than Christmas, though I like the image of crouching so much, there in the darkest shadow of the year!--that what seemed the worst possible thing that could happen should turn out to be a blessing.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.