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Last year [obviously, not long ago] I started reading “The Meaning of Life” by Viktor Frankl. A quick and easy read. I had hoped to finish it by the end of the year but so many things happened between then and now, I completely lost track of my reading. But within that time I picked up another book with a very similar theme, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Both books seem to rely on the idea that throughout our individual endeavors, hardship or good luck, we have some degree of freedom in determining our destiny.
Viktor Frankl is a holocaust survivor. “The Meaning of Life,” is basically an autobiography of his life in an Auschwitz concentration camp. In his short novel, he tries to include every detail about what life was like in captivity. He arrived at one powerful message: we determine our destiny, our purpose. Viktor is what philosophers (like himself) label an existentialist – he first lives, then determines his purpose. In his own words,
“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.”
Viktor’s philosophy embodies what we as individuals seem to take for granted, our psychic capability. Viktor describes one of the most disturbing scenes from the camp,
“The most ghastly moment of the twenty-four hours of camp life was the awakening, when, at a still nocturnal hour, the three shrill blows of a whistle tore us pitilessly from our exhausted sleep and from the longings in our dreams. We then began the tussle with our wet shoes, into which we could scarcely force our feet, which were sore and swollen with edema. And there were the usual moans and groans about petty troubles, such as the snapping of wires which replaced shoelaces. One morning I heard someone, whom I knew to be brave and dignified, cry like a child because he finally had to go to the snowy marching grounds in his bare feet, as his shoes were too shrunken for him to wear.” (p. 32)
Under such condition, Victor hardly had a mind of his own. Such experience presents a distant reality from the freedom of a job, a home, a car… the basic tenets of what we consider human and human entitlements. But Victor believed in the power of his mind. He believed that his experience was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. He would never let his circumstances define him. Whether he believed that one day he would see his wife again or he would live to tell his story, he chose to think beyond how his immediate environment seemed to define him.
The second book, I mentioned, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is almost identical to the “The Meaning of Life”, except that for the most part, it is fiction. The plot of this story unfolds with the American government (New England) being overthrown by a totalitarian theocracy. A new society is formed, which is referred as Gilead. The authority of Gilead holds captured women as captives to serve one purpose and that is to have children for the commander and his wife. The women hardly had any freedom.
The story is told in the first person, by Offred, the main character. Offred is soft-hearted and careful as opposed to her close friend since college, Moira, who is a lesbian. Moira is very rebellious and determined to escape from Gilead. Moira had three failed attempts to escape but when she was last caught, she resigned to being a prostitute than being sent to the colonies. Offred, despite much to gain from escaping – her daughter and partner – remained a captive of her own gullibility. it was only later that Offred became cognisant of her place in Gilead and developed a sense of identity through her own quest for freedom. While she looked to Moira for her resilience, she was shocked, however, towards the end of the story, to find that despite the rebel that Moira was, even after escaping Gilead she (Moira) had not gone very far but had remained a mental captive to society of Gilead. She had become a prostitute.
The novel describes how vulnerable Moira became to the society that she fought so staunchly against. She was worn and torn by the brutal life that she was forced to live.
In Viktor’s case, he was a man of his own mind power. In Moira’s case, she was a woman with guts, but very few plans. Offred, however, felt the need to heed to what society expected of her.
Viktor Frankl lived until 1997. He had many years to tell his story and to inspire people across the world. His words live in many great books and I would encourage a read of “The Meaning of Life.” This is how Viktor describes enlightenment in the midst of his suffering,
“…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. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…”
Each book presents a character that seems to shadow something we can find in ourselves, whether it is our fear, as in Offred’s case; our rebellious nature, as in Moira’s case or our thoughtfulness, as in Viktor’s case. How we seek to define who we are, has much to do with where life takes us.
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