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… and tenderly touching a piece of bread in one’s coat pocket, first stroking it with frozen gloveless fingers, then breaking off a crumb and putting it in one’s mouth …
This is one of those longing nights when my eyelids don’t shut tight because of the welling of water. Those feelings that come when you think of your old grandmother, or think of the unlimited gratitude you have, or when you surprise yourself with the love you receive and your capability of hoarding it all. This longing can come from thinking of all the words that have shaped the course of your destiny. Which is when I think of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, where he writes about surviving 3 years in a concentration camp.
After being freed back into the world, Viktor goes on to become the father of Logotherapy, the theory which describes that every human is motivated by a will to meaning in life. While this might not be a unique premise as far as humans having a primary existential angst, his concept is different in its basic tenet. “Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.”
There is always the unfinished business of living, for which “he must find meaning of his life even in his suffering.” In our suffering, it is very easy to forget the cause of the common good we are all capable of. We have a lot to give. We might have children to tend to, a talent to use for a cause that is greater than your own self.
He says, it’s usually the “Not the physical pain, but the injustice of it all that hurts.” He points out correctly that life cannot be made unbearable by circumstances, but only by the lack of meaning and purpose. This is why probably this features as one of the top five regrets of people who face an untimely death, “Did my life have a purpose? Did I make an impact? Did I matter even a little to anyone?” We all tend to worry in those final moments, surveys have found.
After being taken away from his life as a doctor and thrown into the camp, he lives in squalor, under barbaric cruelty and the uncertainty of impending death each day. He suffers from delusions of reprieve while dreaming each night of cake baths and bread.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
“The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
He offers hope even for those toughest of moments. “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
I will leave you with a paragraph where he describes frustration with his waning and waxing willpower to save his daily bread before eating it too quickly. In the most poignant way, he talks about transcending this predicament of saving the once-a-day ration to the last minute of bearable hunger pangs.
“Those who have not gone through a similar experience can hardly conceive of the soul-destroying mental conflict and clashes of will power which a famished man experiences. They can hardly grasp what it means to stand digging in a trench, listening only for the siren to announce 9:30 or 10:00 A.M. – the half-hour lunch interval – when bread would be rationed out (as long as it was still available); repeatedly asking the foreman – if he wasn’t a disagreeable fellow – what the time was; and tenderly touching a piece of bread in one’s coat pocket, first stroking it with frozen gloveless fingers, then breaking off a crumb and putting it in one’s mouth and finally, with the last bit of will power, pocketing it again, having promised oneself that morning to hold out till afternoon.
We could hold endless debates on the sense or nonsense of certain methods of dealing with the small bread ration, which was given out only once daily during the latter part of our confinement. There were two schools of thought. One was in favor of eating up the ration immediately. This had the twofold advantage of satisfying the worst hunger pangs for a very short time at least once a day and of safeguarding against possible theft or loss of the ration. The second group, which held with dividing the ration up, used different arguments. I finally joined their ranks.”