Archive for the ‘Holocaust’ Category

As a Logotherapist and Existential Analyst I’m often asked what my favourite Viktor Frankl quote is. Such a difficult question! There are so many profoundly moving and insightful words contained in his writings and now very firmly ensconced in his legacy.

If I had to choose though, it would be a sentence I’ve clung onto many times as I’ve faced adversity, failure and unavoidable suffering:

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” (in Man’s Search for Meaning).

No further comment or exegesis is required…….

Ben Ferencz, who at the age of 97 is the last living Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, has issued a powerful reminder of the horrors of war, as reported in the Independent in the UK.

He said this:

“…the Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities were not “savages” but “intelligent, patriotic human being[s]”, and that war can make any normal person do horrifying things.

“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage?”, he asked. 

“Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”

A sobering and very insightful statement………

And so we still look to the day when ‘The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4).

You can read the article here.

The text from the Holocaust Memorial Service held in Cliftonville Moravian Church on 29/1/17:

In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah brings to the fore a community that has suffered much hardship, but has brought justice and mercy to the forefront of their thinking.  Interestingly, there is a recognition that with such enormous injustice, reconciliation is difficult and takes time.  Nevertheless, Micah points to the way forward, and is calling the people to start where they are and get themselves, as we would say colloquially, that first foot on the ladder.  To do just that, takes courage and foresight and is primarily an individual endeavour rather than a strictly community-wide one, at least in the first instance.

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In the beatitudes, at the beginning of the remarkable Sermon on the Mount, we hear a powerful echo of centuries old Jewish teachings on ethics, where God seeks out the vulnerable, the suffering and the marginalised. And not only does God seek out those individuals he imparts his blessing upon them. But there’s one more thing: the beatitudes are a reminder that persecution of the righteous has always been with us – it is, sadly, not new.  We see it throughout human history.

In many senses then, the question that is posed for the 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘How can life go on?’, is at least partially answered in our two readings for today.  In the Old Testament, there are the intertwined themes of justice, mercy and reconciliation.  In the New Testament, we see God’s blessing on those who suffer and are persecuted. None of these things are remotely easy though, and perhaps that goes without saying. The horrors and sheer magnitude of the Holocaust hardly need to be reiterated; only those who have experienced first-hand the depravity of Man and the depths to which humanity can sink can comment. It is presumptuous for the rest of us to do so.

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One of those prophetic voices from the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, is one of those remarkable people who survived and went on to write so insightfully and poignantly about their experiences.  When we read their words, their descriptions of unimaginable suffering and cruelty, it is difficult to believe what they endured.

Viktor Frankl, a Psychiatrist and Neurologist, lost all of his loved ones in the gas chambers, including his pregnant wife.  He went on to detail his experiences in that World famous book – ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  Although it is a very slim volume, it is replete with compassion, determination, self-transcendence, and of course finding meaning in the most awful of situations. There are many lessons contained within it and it is one of these books that begs to be read again and again.

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Many people have found it to be life-changing, if that is not too grand a phrase. For me, as we gather here today to reflect on that phrase ‘How can life go on?’, there are at least three themes that we can draw on from Frankl’s experience.  These are: the ability to choose how we respond to the circumstances before us, how we view suffering and the centrality of love. These three categories are of course interlinked, but nonetheless we can tease them apart to gain more clarity.

 

The Ability to Choose How We Respond

 

Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the camps taught him a valuable lesson about choice.  He understood that even when everything is taken away from a person, we still retain the ability to choose our response.  To be more precise he wrote: ‘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’. In essence he meant that we can respond to adverse circumstances by recoiling and giving up….or we can make a stand, by altering our attitude or perspective on a situation.

 

How We View Suffering

 

Frankl said this of suffering: ‘If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.  Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.  Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete’. He goes on to make the main thrust of his point: ‘The way in which man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may (be to) remain brave, dignified and unselfish’.

 

So once again, Prof. Frankl present suffering, which he knew much more about in practice than we can even begin to grasp, from a different perspective, one in which we Christians can surely identify with.

 

The Centrality of Love

 

This, at least for me, is one of the most stunning, and perhaps surprising insights provided by Viktor Frankl in his short autobiography of his life in the concentration camps.  He says this:

 

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

 

Remarkable.  So here Prof. Frankl is setting out how love works.  When we love someone, then we enable them to be the person they can be; we give them permission, if that’s not too clumsy a term, to move beyond any perceived limitations and to flourish. In any case, we’re reminded of God’s take on this.  Consider 1 John 4: 7: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’.

 

Conclusion

 

In the fifteen or so minutes we have in a Sermon, we can merely scratch the surface of the topic we have before us.  But as we reflect on the question ‘How can life go on’, we at least have a framework.  From the biblical narratives that tell us of God’s constant presence to Viktor Frankl’s insights into human freedom, the nature of suffering and the centrality of love.  From the Holocaust this remarkable man has left a lasting legacy that helps us immeasurably in facing our own suffering; and it is very much compatible with our Christian worldview.

 

We can see a way, because of Viktor Frankl and his lived example, that life can go on.  By remembering the Holocaust, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day, but every day that we live and breathe, we can lament the senseless carnage, but we can also be thankful for the defiant nature of the human spirit.

 

AMEN

 

Friday past marked Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, and the International Holocaust Memorial Day across the globe. Each year people come together, from across religious and cultural divides to remember the genocides that have scarred humanity deeply and irrevocably.

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Many moving commemorative events have taken place; some have been very public events, whilst others have been very private.  I watched Auschwitz survivors gather at the former camp in Poland on the 72nd anniversary of its liberation, and I marvelled at the stoicism and dignity of those elderly survivors.  Having visited Auschwitz several years ago – an experience that I will never forget – I simply cannot understand why seemingly ordinary people can inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings.  But then darkness and unfathomable cruelty are part of our collective human nature; for those that committed such atrocities, I am reminded of Proverbs 6:18 where it is written that there are those with ‘a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil’.

We now know the staggering statistics for the Holocaust, where six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in forced work camps and extermination camps. The scale of the suffering was, and still is, incomprehensible.

There were other groups of people that were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.  Consider political opponents, priests, ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsy people, Slavic people and gay people amongst others.  But there is one group that is sometimes overlooked: the mentally ill.

The Mental Health Foundation website published a powerful article to remind us that those with psychiatric conditions were deemed, in that most egregious of phrases, to be ‘life unworthy of life.’  The prevailing eugenic ideology in Nazi circles was driven by defective science and woeful ignorance.  The consequence of this was that an estimated quarter of a million people living with varying degrees of mental illness were murdered. That few people spoke up against this outrageous programme is chilling.

As we reflect on the voiceless and the persecuted, the question of speaking up and speaking out against injustice comes to mind.  As the Holocaust Survivor and Author Elie Wisel once wrote: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’. This maxim is applicable today as it was before and during the Holocaust. Our world does not want for examples of injustice and persecution; it is therefore our duty as Christians to raise our voices, to challenge and cajole, and to remain informed and vigilant as to what is going on, on our doorsteps and in the world around us.

Every blessing,

Scott

Viktor & I: An Alexander Vesely Film (2010)

Screening on Thursday 26th January, 7.30pm @ The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
Part of Holocaust Memorial Day

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Viktor & I is about famous Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Filmmaker Alexander Vesely travelled the world to document the personal and unique side of this important man. For the first time in film, people will see Dr. Frankl through the eyes of those closest to him. A defining character of the 20th century, he was not only a genius, doctor and survivor of Nazi terror and tragedy but a man who lived, believed and loved. Making his US directorial debut, Vesely shares intimate glimpses of his eminent grandfather who, amidst great suffering also gave us all hope.

Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, will give a brief introduction to the film, while Prof. Paul Miller, Consultant Psychiatrist and Trauma Specialist, will give a short postscript talk on trauma and human responses to it.

Tickets £4.  To make a booking, or for further information, visit the Strand Art Centre’s website at: http://www.strandartscentre.com/movies

For those of you who are interested, I’ve updated my Logotherapy & Existential Analysis website (www.scottpeddie.com).  Logotherapy is a meaning-based approach to psychotherapy founded by the Psychiatrist & Holocaust Survivor, Prof. Viktor Frankl.

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It don’t often post my sermons on this blog, but here’s one I delivered today in All Souls Church in Elmwood Avenue, Belfast:

Finding Meaning through Faith: Learning from Viktor Frankl

MEANING IN LIFE?

In response to the question: ‘What is the most important lesson life has taught you?’, one of my favourite contemporary philosophers (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious!), Slavoj Žižek replied somewhat tetchily: ‘That life is a stupid meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you’. 

Succinct and brutally honest. But Žižek was at least trying to articulate his worldview that the quest for meaning is in and of itself meaningless….so we might as well just get on with life unencumbered by distractions and wishful thinking.  Freedom then, for Žižek, comes from accepting and confronting our meaninglessness.  It just is what it is – nothing more and nothing less.

Contrast this outlook with another of my favourite philosophers – although he’s much more than that – Viktor Frankl.  Professor Frankl was a deeply interesting man: he was a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a philosopher, prolific author and founder of ‘the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ – otherwise known as ‘Logotherapy’ (or therapy through meaning).

Frankl’s worldview, both clinical and personal, was shaped to a significant degree by the fact that he was a Holocaust Survivor.  From 1942-45 he lived, or rather existed, in four concentration camps, including the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz.  What he witnessed and experienced there left an indelible mark on his psyche, deepening his comprehension of human nature and the centrality of meaning.

Frankl’s most famous book is ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  It’s a slim volume and it recounts his experience of the Holocaust.  Against that backdrop of unimaginable horror, he lost all of his family members and suffered terribly, yet his book is hopeful and inspirational.  Each page is replete with meaning.

Now when we talk about meaning, it’s important to remember that Frankl spoke of it terms of ultimate and proximate meaning.  The ultimate is difficult to quantify; as finite creatures we often find it difficult to comprehend the infinite.  But in simple terms, for someone like me, and yourselves, as people of faith – ultimate meaning equates to God.  Proximate meaning on the other hand, is still linked to the ultimate, but it consists of the things that we do, or attitudes we take, that give us meaning in everyday life tasks.  So for example, I find an enormous amount of meaning in the work that I do as a mental health advocate; I find meaning in my family life…and so it goes on; that’s proximate meaning, but it’s inextricably linked to my sense of ultimate meaning – or my Christian faith.  I can’t decouple the two.

Your story will be different.  But as I’ve just said, like me you will find that the ultimate meaning informs what you do in the rest of your life.  If there’s a disconnect there, then it leads to tension and strain.

All Souls

All Souls

MEANING & FAITH

As Christians we’re called upon to look for, and to find our ultimate meaning – and in doing so we connect God.  And here I’m reminded of a sentence from the Book of Isaiah:

‘Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace — in peace because they trust in you’ (Isaiah 26:3).

Here we have the Prophet Isaiah transmitting a very powerful  and well thought through message.  He makes us think….. that a mind that is steadfast – or fixed on God – is a mind that has engaged with ultimate meaning.  When we understand God, in-as-much as we are able given our very obvious human limitations, we find meaning: meaning in happiness….or failure….or pain……or suffering. We find meaning in all that is around us….in the frailty of relationships, the broken dreams and stilted aspirations…..just as much, or even more, as in the positive aspects of life….the beauty of friendships and the wonder of creation.

We transcend ourselves when we fully engage our faith.  We look beyond our failures and victories and we see that we are part of something greater than ourselves.  Our faith can be expressed in a myriad of different ways.  Viktor Frankl was a practising Jew his entire life, but he was very careful not to impose, or even be seen to be imposing, his religious conviction upon others; that was not the way he operated as a therapist, physician or man.  He understood that each and every one of us must reach our own conclusion – and find ultimate and proximate meaning for ourselves; we are after all, fully responsible for our own lives and the way we live them.

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All Souls

The Nazi’s who persecuted Viktor Frankl and millions of others, simply because of their religion, race, sexual orientation or political affiliations used their freedom to pursue nihilistic goals.  They misused their freedom and perverted their will to meaning; they did not understand the concept of love and it fuelled their malevolence and barbaric cruelty.

Paul the Apostle wrote of how we should properly use our freedom in a letter he wrote to a number of Christian communities in Galatia.  He said this:

‘For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one command: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Galatians 5:13-14

The choice is there for all to see.  Paul understood it; the churches in Galatia also understood it.  It is a stark choice that applies to us all; it is timeless – we can use our lives selfishly, or we can use them to make a difference, large or small; to truly love our neighbours as ourselves.  Viktor Frankl writes of one such occasion, or more likely a series of occasions where the love of neighbour was made manifest in the actions of a number of people; this was a costly and humbling love this still moves me to this day.  He wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

‘“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man (person) 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.”’ 

This ability to choose one’s own way is a central strand of Frankl’s Logotherapy.  Reclaiming that ability is of inestimable therapeutic value.  Too often we let events overtake us and we feel stranded. But we have the ability, as Frankl did, to change our attitude in difficult situations.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.Flag of Germany.svg Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

Prf. Viktor Frankl. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Flag of Germany.svg
Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

Consider this story from ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Indeed.

OUR LEGACY

And there is just one more thought I want to leave you with today.  We are very much a sum of our parts; as we make our way through life we accumulate much in the way of experiences, both negative and positive. That is the nature of life.

With Frankl though, no experience of meaning is ever lost or wasted.  We take it with us.  As he has said himself:  “In the granaries of our past everything is safely stored.”  So even suffering cannot erase that sense of meaning and the experience of meaningfulness; it does not, no matter how hard it tries, have the last word. Here we have Frankl again: I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.’ “

And so when we look back over our lives, there will no doubt be periods of regret or disappointment, or even times when we’ve been ashamed of our actions or inactions.  None of these experiences and feelings have been wasted if we can recognise within them a kernel of meaning.  We cannot change the past, nor should we attempt to try, but we can always attempt to place it within that wider context.

We may think of a job lost through redundancy for example.  In a life lived where such an event is seen purely through the lens of suffering a misfortune, there is no room for growth and positive experience.  But where we have a change of attitude, we can see past the difficulty and be thankful for the space to reflect and re-evaluate, and ultimately, to re-orientate our priorities and to move our life in a different direction.

Many of us will have experienced real hardship for reasons beyond our control; the death of a loved one; the loss of a home; a life-changing illness. Frankl’s experiences teach us that in all situations, even in the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camp, there is meaning. He found it every day in the simple things – the sunset, human company and being able to use his medical knowledge to help and console his fellow inmates.

Nothing is ever lost.  When we die there are the memories that live on; there are the people we have helped and the family members we have left behind, their personalities shaped by our influence.  The struggles? Well, they live on too, shaped by the meaning we’ve assigned to them.

The physicist and Anglican Priest, Professor John Polkinghorne, gives us one final pause for thought. He puts his understanding of what happens when we die this way:  “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.”  So then we have even more reason for hope; the meaning we have engaged with and has so enriched our earthly lives goes with us too.

CONCLUSION

To conclude, Viktor Frankl, and his Logotherapy, can help us and guide us through our faith journey, encouraging us to finds meaning in our worldview and to practice the ethic of self-transcendence.  Looking beyond ourselves, engaging in service and living for others is the very basis of the Christian life.

Understanding Frankl’s message can help us to become better Christians, to understand our motivations and to be happier in our own vocations and content to live the life God has given us.

And let us not forget, as I give the last word to Viktor Frankl: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” 

AMEN

“Selection Birkenau ramp” by Unknown. Several sources believe the photographer. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/

According to an article published today in The Guardian reporting on a scientific paper authored by a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Dr. Rachel Yehuda and published in Biological Psychiatry, genetic changes resulting from trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children.

Yehuda and her team specifically targeted one region of a gene associated with stress hormone regulation.  According to The Guardian, the Mount Sinai team’s work ‘is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren’.

These findings are clearly important in helping us understand trauma and reminds us of the importance of avoiding it in the first instance, but also of early intervention and comprehensive treatment.

You can read The Guardian article here: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/21/study-of-holocaust-survivors-finds-trauma-passed-on-to-childrens-genes