I fear America is sliding steadily toward social disorder and economic disarray. In an atmosphere of deepening crisis, I am concerned about the potential for overreaction by government, police agencies, and citizens. These are circumstances in which terrible things can happen, and indeed are happening.
This week I will share a story with you that illuminates our capacity as human beings to assert our dignity and inner freedom even amidst the most dreadful circumstances.
Responding to the contradictions and injustices we experience in life is challenging. Yet, doing so rationally and responsibly can be a personal statement of transcendent freedom. This is possible regardless of the conditions around us, however difficult they may be.
To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our identity with dignity and perseverance.
We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves. Indeed, it could be nightmarish. But, possessing free will necessitates a commitment to be free in oneself and to engage proactively with the circumstances we face.
If there is a primary requirement for attaining inner integrity, it is the personal determination to do so. In my view, this choice has never been described more eloquently than by Viktor Frankl in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the testimony of four terrible years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.
Because his response to that experience is so revealing, I will devote most of this post to his words:
“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings. (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.) But, what about human liberty?
“Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? …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?
“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.
“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….
“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.”
As we face our own tests, which we hope will not be so daunting as Dr. Frankl’s, how can we find this resilience within ourselves? Here is a freedom gained through empowered compassion and responsibility as we respond to the turmoil of a transformative age.
No one can do this for us. As we turn our attention to the suffering and confusion of those around us, we are preparing for both the coming hardship and the new day beyond.
Next week: Liberty and justice made personal.