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“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This quote from Viktor Frankl has inspired millions since its publication in Man’s Search for Meaning seventy years ago this year.
Given Frankl’s influence in helping others emerge from the darkest nights of the soul; however, it’s interesting to note that, during his three years as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl drew strength from a quote himself.
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
I was reminded of these words recently in Charleston, South Carolina when I met a woman who is a direct decedent of Gullah slaves. After listening to her belt out a gospel hymn her ancestors would sing on the fields – here’s a clip – she told me they had to keep a song in their hearts just to get through the day.
I believe our “why to live” is also the song of our heart.
The problem, however, is that we keep searching for it in places where it can’t be found. This is what makes Man’s Search for Meaning such a relevant book for our time and, indeed, for all time.
Yes, it serves as a vital eye-witness to history, but it’s so much more than that.
When Frankl says “everything can be taken from a man but one thing” – you believe him. Frankl lost his parents, his wife, his unborn child, his work, his body, and his freedom – and yet he discovered (for all of us) that, even within a soul that has been ripped open, the song of the heart remains.
In other words, love remains.
According to Frankl there are two branches to this love, the first being love of another. Frankl learned this lesson most vividly while marching to a work site in the middle of winter and trying to distract himself from his own cruel and miserable condition.
In one of the more moving passages of the book, Frankl discovered that he was able to escape his physical circumstances – again, leaning on the spiritual freedom of the inner life – simply by thinking about his wife.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
At the time Frankl didn’t know that his wife was gone, but years later, as he was reflecting on this experience, he stated that it wouldn’t have mattered. The love that remained was the why to live that enabled him to bear the how, proving once and for all that the love of another – any other – is what allows us to remain whole, even when everything else is broken.