As I write this blog post, the whole world is in the midst of dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.
Governments across the planet have imposed measures (though some more effectively than others) and the main course of action has been to impose nationwide lockdowns. While this isn’t a total 100% ban on going outside for many of us, we are still generally remaining at home.
As the weeks have passed, many of us, myself included, have had instances where we felt it quite difficult. Staying at home without the option to freely go about your business and leisure isn’t enjoyable. Combine this with the fact that the lines between work (for those of us who are fortunate enough to do so) and home are blurred by working from home, and you have a recipe for a mental grind which will bring your productivity and mental health to a low.
It was a coincidence then, that I have been reading a long recommended book by Victor Frankl called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Frankl was a Jewish Man who had been interned in a Concentration Camp by the Nazis until his eventual liberation and release at the end of WW2. His tendency to be introspective along with his previous profession in medicine made for a book written post-liberation that has shed much light on the human condition under duress since.
Lessons from the Second World War
Frankl noted that many of the men in the camps had died mentally and emotionally long before their bodies had stopped functioning. This was due to their lack of hope in their situation. They had become unable to bear the tremendous sufferings that lay for them every single day as prisoners, and who could blame them? This was hardly a situation many of us could imagine, as many books and films as we may ingest on the topic.
But this led Frankl to question further. What was it that allowed some men to rise above their situation and to bear their situation with courage, and even grace? As I read further into the book I came to find the answer.
As Frankl wrote, the word ‘finish’ that we know and use today comes from the Latin word ‘Finis’. What I didn’t know is that this original Latin term has a second meaning, ‘a goal to reach’.
This is significant because it gives a deeper explanation of what a ‘finish’ really is. It can be explained as having reached or at least aspired towards an end result. This itself implies some sort of objective certainty at the end. It was this exact objective certainty that was deprived from all the Prisoners inside the Concentration Camps.
“…The most depressing influence of all was that a prisoner could not know how long his term of imprisonment would be. He had been given no date for his release. (In our camp it was pointless even to talk about it.) Actually a prison term was not only uncertain but unlimited.”V. E. Frankl
These men and women had no idea when their terms as prisoners, as slaves would end. Even worse, they had evidence around them that only proved it was indefinite. Their friends and colleagues died beside them every day from hunger, illness and even suicide. Even the prisoner sentenced in a modern court of law usually has a set release date, and it is this date which can feed the hopes and aspirations of the individual, for he knows that as long as he bears the struggle until then, he can expect a return to his previous life at a date in the future.
It was this lack of certainty that filled the prisoners with dread instead of hope, and with depressed pessimism rather than courageous, heroic optimism.
Sound a little familiar?
Understanding the Past
It goes without saying that there is absolutely no comparison between the trials and tribulations of being stuck in a Concentration Camp and being quarantined at home in relative luxury during a viral pandemic, but for many of us, we can still benefit from the underlying principles Frankl expounds upon in his book.
It may have even seemed fresh, new and exciting for many of us when lockdown first started, we had the opportunity to spend more time with our families, and more time to work on hobbies outside of our profession, but as the river of time has flowed on, we find ourselves facing a familiar dilemma. There has been no firm indication for when the lockdown will end and I increasingly feel it has begun to take a toll on people mentally.
We find ourselves in a similar situation with regards to the absence of an ‘end date’. While some are optimistic for a Summer end, others maintain that some measures will have to remain in place for at least a year. Either way, the level of control by which we can look towards a certain date for such restrictions to end has receded from our lives.
So just how did those who survived not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally in the Concentration Camps do it? For those under so much more stress, worry and anxiety than we may ever be, how did they understand their predicament? How did they not only live to see another day but also keep their spirit intact?
Frankl states that those who fell into the deadly spiral of apathy and emotional detachment from an external goal had what they felt was only one option left for them. If the future seemed unattainable and certain, and the present was too horrific to think about, an individual could only preoccupy his mind with continuous thoughts and memories of his past.
“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts … We have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real.”V. E. Frankl
Men turned their thoughts constantly to remember their lives before the war, before the torturous days in the Concentration Camps. While this was an effective immediate remedy for their situation, drinking a shallow gulp from this spring left them exposed to becoming completely submerged in it. By constantly indulging themselves into their past, they completely disregarded their present, a danger in its own right.
Frankl goes on to explain that by ignoring their present situation, these Men would happen to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of their lives. He explains:
“But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”V. E. Frankl
Despite the terrifying realities of living in a Concentration Camp, there were opportunities for people to turn their experiences into something positive, and no matter how small that positive contribution was, it was a vital weapon in the war against the dread and despair that was otherwise poised to fill their souls.
“Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.”V.E. Frankl
Inspiration for the Present
Those, however, who were able to seize any opportunities for positivity in their current situation were the same individuals who were able to grow to a new level beyond themselves. Only by virtue of the fact that they were in such a horrible situation did these individuals transcend themselves at all. Their situation was the catalyst for their growth.
“…A few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved.”V.E. Frankl
These Men understood that their current situation afforded to them opportunities that were not present anywhere else. Only they were able to see them while many others merged with the memories of their past and fell to a mental vegetative state.
“Most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”V.E. Frankl
We can understand from this incredible story that the main factor separating an apathetic, worn out prisoner from a hopeful, optimistic one was to make him feel that he had a serious, realistic future to live towards. Despite his own circumstances, Frankl imagined himself lecturing to students as a professor in the future once he had escaped or been liberated from the camp. This goal was only attainable in the future, and by focusing on it, he was able to trivialise much of his present suffering.
“I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”
Lets bring this back to our current situation.
Stay Positive, Set Goals
While I will unequivocally state again that our situation compared to his and those like him are worlds apart, we can still learn and benefit from his mindset and understanding of his circumstances.
Its easy to lose yourself to boredom and laziness with the Coronavirus situation or to feel alienated from how different your life was only 2-3 months ago earlier this year. But keep in mind that this lockdown will eventually end. Keep your eyes and mind peeled for the opportunities available during this time and understand that every hardship contains a locked compartment within which we can benefit from. The key to open it is hope.
Transcend your current state and be an example for those around you. Be there for your neighbours, help those who cannot help themselves be the inspiration for others.
Focus on a future goal and keep in mind those who lived through similar, and much worse, situations before you. Visualise the types of things you want to do once travel restrictions have been lifted, be it to visit countries you always wanted to see, visit friends and family more, start a business or even a gym routine. The opportunities will be available, visualise and strive towards fulfilling them.
The situation isn’t an easy one, and it may get worse before it gets better, but it is vital to focus on a goal and to keep hope for better times within each of us. Its easy for the days to blend together and some may even feel the pangs of apathy approach them at times, but give your time a purpose by setting future goals. Perhaps a skill you wish to master, a course you want to complete or a language you wish to learn will be what gives your time more meaning.
Either way, stay focused on a goal.