In-Depth Insights

1. Shock Comes in Two Stages

When people entered the concentration camps, their first reaction was not fear but rather shock—initially in the form of hope but then in the form of despair.

It’s not because the Jewish people were unaware of the inhumane acts being carried out but because their reactions were split into distinct phases.

The first phase—shock—set in when the prisoners were being transported to the camps or upon their arrival. They were so shocked at what was happening to them that they tried desperately to convince themselves that everything would have to, somehow, be OK and that what they’d heard of happening to others wouldn’t—couldn’t—happen to them or their family. At Auschwitz, people arriving on the train were divided into two lines with one going to the left and one to the right. One of the lines was for people going to immediate execution, the other for hard labor, but no one in either of the lines knew what the lines meant, so each group would convince themselves that their line was the line of reprieve, signaling hope and escape.

At this initial stage, the prisoners were not accustomed to the atrocities of the camp; they were not used to seeing the brutal punishments carried out for minor offenses, so everything was frightening and the intense emotions too much for them to manage. Soon after,  though, people would lose hope and see death as a welcome relief from the grotesque brutality, most contemplating suicide and some even succeeding.

2. Apathy Allows for Survival

After a few days in the camp, prisoners would get over their initial shock and fall into a state of apathy. They became used to the horror of the Nazi camp, becoming emotionally numb to the death and brutality that surrounded them. This sense of apathy allowed people to concentrate all their thoughts and emotions on the matter of survival. No longer did they think, talk, or dream about love or desire; instead they became focused on food and other vital, life-sustaining satisfactions that were limited in the camps.

Their apathy acted as a shield, allowing them to live through the day-to-day atrocities whilst grabbing any opportunity to better their chance of survival. During a typhus outbreak, people experiencing this second phase didn’t feel pity or disgust as they looked at the corpses; instead they saw opportunity, taking shoes, clothing, even hoarding food from the deceased prisoners.

The majority of prisoners saw no hope in the future, and since their life had no meaning, they gave up on the idea of “living” and simply existed until they died.

3. Bitterness Follows Disbelief

Many people survived because they managed to cling on to a sense of meaning, never giving up on hope, but this didn’t mean that after their liberation they could return to life as normal. Because they had felt apathy for so long, they could not immediately switch to feeling joyful upon their release.  Even though they had dreamt of freedom for so long, it was difficult for them to understand that the day had finally come when what they had been longing and praying for had actually happened. Add to this the sadness of returning home only to find that all family members had been killed and their homes destroyed.

Feelings of disbelief followed by bitterness were normal with many prisoners feeling the need to inflict harm on others (such as the guards in the camp) after all that had been done to them. 

The prisoners thought they would be met by compassion from people on the street, but their suffering was shrugged off. Most people, having never seen a concentration camp, were unable to understand the horrors of one, so they would explain how they, too, had suffered from bombings and rationing.

4. Our ‘Inner Life’ Distracts Us from the Real World

Prisoners who were able to distract themselves from what was happening around them by putting their focus on their “inner” lives—for example, by thinking about their loved ones and reminiscing about past times—were able to keep their sanity and survive the horrors going on around them. 

Thinking about loved ones, or having an imaginary conversation with them, could bring a sense of fulfillment whilst the prisoners were doing hard labor in the cold without the proper clothing. Others would find a fleeting glimpse of happiness from a pretty sunset, from watching a bird flying overhead, or from humor. Song, dance, and other performances were held in small gatherings during the prisoners’ 30-minute lunch break as distractions from the harsh reality of another day imprisoned.

5. Recognizing Choice

Freedom to choose is something most of us take for granted day in and day out, from selecting what we wear to choosing what we eat, but in the prison camps, the ability to decide for oneself was rare, and when it did come up, it could be a life or death matter. Most prisoners were afraid to choose in case they made the wrong choice, but others liked to make decisions at every given opportunity in an effort to change their fate.

Being ordered to change camps is one such example where most prisoners would simply await their fate but others would try to control it. A camp transfer would be referred to as a move to a “rest camp,” but the true destination was unknown and could have meant being moved to the gas chambers instead. Some prisoners would go wherever they were told, resigned to their fate, but others would become desperate to change the decision such as by working extra shifts so that they could remain despite not knowing if it would be better or worse for them to stay put.

This need to choose gave prisoners the sense of maintaining a tiny sliver of freedom, so they would grab any opportunity that was presented to them if it involved a choice. It was these prisoners who tried to live, as far as was possible, in accordance with their own values and high moral standards, such as by choosing not to eat their bread despite their great hunger and giving their portion to someone in greater need.

6. Our Motivation Stems from Our Life’s Meaning

Viktor Frankl realized that people need meaning in their life in order to have something to look forward to. He saw that prisoners who could maintain meaning in their life were stronger and more resilient than others who had lost theirs. These observations helped him to confirm ideas from his own theory of psychotherapy known as logotherapy which attests to the fact that our search for meaning is the greatest motivation in our lives.

When people don’t have meaning in their lives, they’re left with an existential vacuum. Consequently, people who are unable to live according to their values or feel that life has no meaning carryl a sort of emptiness inside themselves.

7. There Is No All-Encompassing Meaning of Life

Most people think that they need to discover their purpose in life before they go about making the so-called “right” choices in life, but logotherapy suggests the opposite is true: how we act and the responsibility we feel towards our choices determine our meaning in life.

Everyone’s life has its own specific meaning in any given moment. It all depends on each person’s circumstances and decisions—there’s no one-size-fits-all and zero restrictions.  Think of this in terms of chess, a grandmaster would tell you that there’s no best move overall, only a best move depending on the situation you come up against in the game. This means that everybody can have meaning in life, and everyone must figure out their life’s purpose depending on their own decisions. One person might find personal meaning at their place of work, feeling that they’re part of a positive contribution, someone else might find meaning by helping society through volunteering, which helps improve people’s lives.

8. Pursue Your Fears to Banish Them

Logotherapy doesn’t just help people to find their meaning in life; it also helps those who have experienced the existential vacuum and developed mental disorders because of it.

Through a number of techniques, logotherapy focuses on the internal factors that affect patients rather than the external factors, which is where regular psychotherapy fails (the psychotherapist analyzing the patient’s neurotic fears that are explained by the patient’s environment and other external circumstances and events). Logotherapy helps people understand that they are actually in control of their fears by assuming that people are able to make decisions and define their life’s purpose independent of their environment. 

Think about it: when we fear something will happen, it often does. Yet when we try and force something to happen, it rarely does! Logotherapy asks the patient to do the thing that they’re afraid of as much as possible (perhaps this is getting tongue-tied when making a speech in front of people). The patient will find that the more they try to force something to happen, in this case getting tongue-tied, the less that thing will actually happen until eventually the fear is cured.

The above is inspired from the bestselling book "Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor Frankl.

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