September 15, 2014
Our book club will be reading Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning in a couple of months. Frankl was a psychiatrist who was seized by the Nazis at the height of the Holocaust, separated from his family, and imprisoned at Auschwitz. It's not a book I'd ever have chosen on my own. I don't have much taste for books (or films) that deal with painful topics. No terminal illnesses, please. No slavery or discrimination. And certainly no Nazis. Unless we're sending in Indiana Jones, or Charlie Chaplin's playing Der Fuehrer.
Although I never had any known connection with people who had personally survived the Nazi extermination camps, there's a film clip on the topic, about twenty seconds long, that altered forever my view of the world. In 1945, when the war ended, I was ten. My notion of scary movies at that time was limited to Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, and other similar horror films.
We didn't have TV in those days, of course. The only visual news consisted of stills in the newspapers, and a news report at our local movie theater. It was called something like News of the Week. Anyway, I walked in one Saturday afternoon, looking forward to watching probably the usual double feature, which would have been something like a Boston Blackie movie and a western, and the serial. The big draw for the kids I hung out would have been the serial. Probably Don Winslow or Spy Smasher.
On that occasion, though, we had just reached the extermination camps and the first pictures were being shown. I won't go into any detail except to say that there has been no distressful moment in my entire life that has been so burned into my memory. I'd known, of course, that a war was going on, and that a lot of cruelty was happening, but I don't think the American public had any idea until then about the depths of Nazi depravity. That humans could be capable of such barbarism. I came away that afternoon with a sense that the world was a far darker place than I had ever believed.
I'm glad I didn't miss this book. Frankl lost his family. He describes his experience, analyzes it, and makes a number of crucial points. Life can become exceedingly cruel, he says. Misfortune can take away everything we value. Except one thing: It cannot deprive us of the ability to choose how we will respond.
He argues that it is critical to recognize what really matters. Family, spouse, kids, and friends. And a career that provides a sense of accomplishment, of having an impact on the lives of others. Doctors, teachers, police officers come immediately to mind. But also people who make it possible to enjoy an evening in a restaurant, who do the paperwork when we have to go get a blood sample taken, who run cash registers in supermarkets. The point, Frankl makes, is the way we look at our work, that we recognize it for the service it provides, and not exclusively, or even primarily, for the paycheck. Paychecks are fine, and they keep a roof over our heads, but they don't provide a sense of accomplishment. At least, nothing like a fireman who receives a thank-you card from a grateful family, or the computer techs who helped get us to the Moon.
Frankl recommends that we recognize the contributions we make to those around us. (And I'd add, to take some pride in knowing that other people's lives are at least a little bit better through their connections with us.) Enjoy the company of those who matter to us, and keep in mind that we don't have them forever. Which is why lunch with friends is the secret of life. Anyone who doubts that might think about those we've known and loved who are no longer with us, and how much we would give to be able to sit down again with them and simply share a pizza.