It’s 1942, and the shadow of the Third Reich lies heavy on Europe.
When the Nazis finally come for Viktor Frankl and his family, it seems all is lost. His father perishes in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. Two years later Frankl and the rest of his family are driven to Auschwitz, where he loses his mother. Later, his wife dies in the Bergen-Belsen camp.
Everywhere he turns there is the barbed wire, the armed guards, the gas chambers, the mountains and the trenches of the dead, the stench of sickness and decay; in short, the creation of hell on earth.
Yet even here, somehow – you could say miraculously – Frankl has an epiphany. There is just one thing in this world that the Nazis can never take from him: his power to choose how he responds to the unimaginable trauma they had inflicted upon him and his.
And what he chooses is to hold on to the idea that his life has meaning; that beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounds him on every front, he still has a reason for existing, for carrying on in the world.
Frankl survives the camps and goes on to describe his experiences in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.(1)
Previously I wrote about the importance of letting go of what you can’t control. Yet it may be what Frankl teaches us about the flipside of that coin that matters more: what you do control. After all, if you’re a fool to think you control everything you are equally a fool to think you control nothing. No matter what your external circumstance, there is one thing you control – assuming a psychologically healthy mind – and it makes all the difference in the world: yourself.
“Personal responsibility” is one of those tricky concepts. On the face if it, everyone agrees with it; who thinks people shouldn’t take responsibility for themselves? Yet on the other hand it is a term that has been hijacked in the service of victim-blaming and prejudice, telling people that everything that happens to them is their own fault. However, personal responsibility is such a crucial concept for well-being that we have to reclaim this term.
Psychological research tells us that those who assume control of their well-being lies outside of themselves tend to see themselves as perpetual victims, blame everyone else for everything, and tend to be (unsurprisingly) more all-round miserable. Those who assume control lies inside themselves see themselves as having power and agency and tend to be more fulfilled in their relationships, careers, life-satisfaction and so forth.(2)
Of course, it is very easy at this point to fall into the trap of “toxic positivity.” Just choose to be happy! Sorry, but if you tell someone who has just lost a loved one that they should choose to think “happy thoughts,” then they will be right to punch you in the face. It’s ok to not be ok.
But whether we choose to repress grief with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to let grief destroy us, or we choose to deal with it in a healthy way, we are still always making a choice about how we respond. If that wasn’t the case, then there would be no hope.
By realising that we choose our response to the world, that we are not perpetual victims who control nothing any more than we are gods who control everything, we can begin to own our suffering.
Choosing how you respond to the world
Different traditions have emphasised at least three different ways that you control yourself and your response to the world.
Buddhist mindfulness is based in cultivating control in terms of your state of mind, or how you think. To be clear, you cannot always control what thoughts come and go in the mind. The core of Buddhism is that pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings will both inevitably come and go, and trying to either cling to or avoid them is precisely what causes us misery.
However, when you ground your attention in the present moment, you are in a state where you can take control of your relationship to your own thoughts. In mindfulness, an anxious thought may arise but that doesn’t mean you have to believe the thought, much less react emotionally to it. So instead of being battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind, you can literally just observe them rise and pass away.
This is self-control defined.
Greek and Roman Stoicism emphasises control in terms of cultivating who you are, your character as a human being. As Epictetus said, “The good or ill of a person lies within their own will.”(3)
As I’ve written before, the Stoics point out that external goals like wealth, fame, the admiration of others, etc. are no good because they largely depend on factors outside our control. Whereas internal goals that make us a better, wiser, happier person are far more worth our time because they lie within our control. So instead of just hoping the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, focus on the kind of person you want to be.
Instead of just hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of just hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of just hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, be a voice for anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-classism and environmentalism, which you control.
Yet Frankl himself is usually associated with the not-so-ancient and very loose school known as Existentialism, which advocates control in terms of figuring out your purpose, or why you carry on. Their catch-cry is “existence precedes essence,”(4) which basically just means that, rather than coming into existence as the result of some predetermined purpose (as set by God, Fate, Nature and so forth), we come into existence first and then choose our purpose.
More simply put, the meaning of life – and therefore the meaning of all the crap that life throws at you – is what you make it. Jean-Paul Sartre – the poster-boy of Existentialism – even went so far as to argue that a person is free even when they’re in chains, since they have the freedom to choose the meaning of their condition.
Such thinking was certainly part of Frankl’s answer to the Nazi concentration camps: “People are ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as they can see a meaning in it.”(5) In fact he went further, posing that finding one’s meaning is the fundamental driving force for human beings; the “will to purpose” as opposed to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”
Sartre contended that the freedom to choose our own purpose can be exhilarating or anxiety-inducing (depending on how you look at it). When people feel the latter they tend to look to authority figures – parents, mentors, church, etc. – to simply tell them the meaning of their life; but this is what Sartre called “bad faith,” or pretending that such authority figures know something that they don’t.(6)
No, our purpose can never be based on being true to someone else’s expectations, only on being true to our own; this is what Sartre said it is to live “authentically.” If the Stoics emphasise being our best selves, being true to ourselves and our ideals, Existentialists add that doing so is the very thing that gives our lives meaning.
Don’t just fight fascists like the Nazis because you hope to win. Instead, fight fascists because it’s who you are, it’s what you believe in, and therefore it gives you purpose, your reason for being. Fight fascists because even the slave who is true to themselves lives a freer, more meaningful existence than the king who is not. Fight fascists because they’re fascists.
the last of the human freedoms
Whichever school of thought you align yourself with, there is truth in all of them: resilience comes down to the choices you make about how you think, who you are and why you carry on. The power to make these choices is something that no one – not even Nazis at the height of their power – can take away from you. It is in this sense that you are never powerless.
Frankl was by no means perfect. However, the main take-away from his story should be an invaluable lesson for us all. If Frankl could harness the power to choose his response, even during one of the darkest episodes of all time and with such a horrific level of personal loss, we all can.
Even when all else is taken away from you, this is “the last of the human freedoms.”
1. Frankl, V. (1947). Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press.
2. Psychology Today. (n.d.). Locus of Control. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/basics/locus-control
3. Epictetus. (n.d.). Discourses. In Robert Dobbin (Ed.) Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings. Penguin Classics. (2008).
4. Sartre, J. P. (1946). Existentialism is a Humanism. Yale University Press.
6. Sartre, J. P. (1943). L’Être et le Néant. Editions Gallimard.