What the worst situation you can imagine being confined to? A Saudi prison, Guantanomo Bay? Maybe a concentration camp under the Nazis like Auschwitz?
Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist and doctor, survived four concentration camps including Auschwitz. While he was incarcerated he developed his ideas on therapy by watching how fellow prisoners and himself coped with the appalling conditions they were put under. He concluded that those prisoners who survived mentally were those that made meaning from their lives. Frankl says that it is not pleasure or suffering which determines whether you are content with life but how you accept or come to terms with your present existence. It is life which is asking the question not you. Your response is how you give meaning to life.
I do not see his ideas as a call to passive acceptance of whatever difficulties we are facing. No, it is a reminder and a challenge to find within oneself the resources to honour oneself. To act to change things, not from a position of blaming others or circumstances, but as an expression of one’s own aliveness.
He wrote a short book describing his experiences in the concentration camps and his ideas on existential philosophy and therapy. I was rereading it this week and found a passage which relates to ecotherapy. The men he was with were living under the most horrendous physical and psychological conditions, how did they respond to nature?
Mans Search for Meaning (1984 original 1946) Frankl V. pp59-60
‘As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone has seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he could never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor – or maybe because of it – we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.
In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water colour by Dürer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. 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 into 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 colours, 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!”’