"Everything can be taken from a man except one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in a given situation, to choose one's own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision; a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom: which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate."
This quote comes from the book Man's Search for Meaning,by Victor Frankl -- an Austrian psychologist who spent three years of his twenties imprisoned in four different concentration camps in Nazi Germany, unsure whether his pregnant wife was alive or dead.
What I found so moving about his account was not the unspeakable things that happened in the camps -- things that defy human understanding and yet actually happened less than a hundred years ago -- but rather, the meaning this man made of his experience, and how his insight challenges each of us to look deeper at our own reasons for living.
At one point, Frankl relays the story of two comrades who had given up hope. They'd both spoken of their intention to commit suicide, and finally the day came when neither man could be roused from his cot to march at 5am, choosing instead to "lay in his own feces, smoking a cigarette" -- a sure sign that death would claim them within days.
Both men offered the same argument: that they had nothing left to expect from life.
Although we can't possibly fathom what these men had to endure to get to this point, we might nevertheless understand their desire to end their lives and escape their suffering. But amazingly, Frankl implored his "despairing comrades," and his reader, to consider that:
"It does not really matter what we expect from life; but rather, what life expects of us."
One of the men, when asked to consider what life might be asking of him -- what unique purpose only he could serve -- immediately thought of the son he adored, who was waiting for him in a foreign country.
For the other, it was not a person, but a work. He was a scientist, and had written a series of books that still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, "any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child's affections."
And both men, after confronting this question, decided to go on living.
As Nietzsche said: "He who knows the 'why' of his existence, can bear almost any 'how.' "
This total reframe of the question is available to all of us, regardless of our circumstances. Each of us can decide to stop asking what life has to offer us; and instead ask what we have to offer life.
This week, I invite you to reflect on what life might be asking of you -- what unique purpose can only YOU fulfill? And will you exercise your inner freedom... to live up to it?