Viktor Frankl on Suffering and Spiritual Freedom

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors — be they biological, psychological, or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?…

In his enduring book, “Man’s Search for Meaning“, Austrian Neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl questions the environmental influence on man and reassures for us the presence of choice we innately possess. Referencing with great detail his and his fellow mans’ time during the Holocaust, within the inhumane and surreal conditions of concentration camp life, Frankl takes you to the lowest depths of human experience. But, upon momentary and subsequent life long observation into this experience, he assures for us the truth and the power of our last remaining individual liberty — spiritual freedom.

… We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man 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 men 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 man 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. Click To Tweet

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. 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 man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him– mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevksi said once, There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings. Click To Tweet These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this… Spiritual Freedom-- which cannot be taken away-- that makes life meaningful and purposeful. Click To Tweet

Independent of one’s current environment, or suffering, the human experience is largely dependent upon our perspective, a perspective which is instilled through the narrative we create for ourselves. We have choice; we do. We can choose to view our lives as a part of some uncontrollable fate for which we did not create or ask for, and rest assure many times in life things do happen that we cannot control. But, on the contrary, we can also view our lives however we choose to, uniquely crafted and experienced based upon one thing– Our last remaining freedom-- freedom of spirit. Click To Tweet

Understand, no matter what you are going through, no matter how bad we have painted this experience to be, at any given moment there is choice; choice of action, choice of thought, choice of meaning. Place the value upon life yourself, free from external forces in which, again, for the most part, you cannot control. Give meaning to what you want to give meaning to and base that meaning accordingly to the perspective you want. It’s your choice. And, if your suffering is confusing to you at this moment, find peace in this: Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

3 thoughts on “Viktor Frankl on Suffering and Spiritual Freedom”

  1. Great article. Great book. Today I am reminded of when my 26 year old was fighting cancer. When they told him it was terminal, he asked how to continue to fight. I told him he could fight spiritually. He did,nd even though it eventually took his life, I have never seen anything as heroic before or since. Thank you.

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