Sometimes I’ve encountered a book at such a critical moment in life that it seemed like fate. Whether I found the book or it found me didn’t matter so much as the mutual self-recognition that transpired between our souls, even though the writer might be dead. When something about a book–a phrase, image, or profundity–resonates with my entire being, my mind luxuriates in the sensation of discovery, that joyous feeling of being understood.
Those are the moments when a book can change a person’s life. I know several that changed mine. Books like Jane Eyre and Inherit the Wind seeped into my consciousness and stayed. Looking back, I think it had a lot to do with timing. They wouldn’t have had the same effect on me had I read them later as an adult.
Recently, I finished Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning which has since become one of those books for me, though I’m sure some time will have to pass before I can fully understand why. In terms of writing style, Frankl’s prose is mostly lean and his tone is neutral–which could be attributed to his training as a psychiatrist. But moments of celebratory intensity and poetic beauty arise as well, especially as he rebuilds himself after his imprisonment. At his best, he sounds like a prophet, delivering lines with such conviction that they strike as life-affirming truths.
Here, then, are some excerpts from the book for the time being.
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 of so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which men 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.
On looking at the sky
One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”
On the meaning of suffering
Again I quoted a poet–to avoid sounding like a preacher myself–who had written, “What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.” Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
The freedom of space
One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky–and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world–I had but one sentence in mind–always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”
At any given moment
Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality once and forever, an immortal “footprint in the sands of time”? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.
Definition of man
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
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