What the Holocaust and Stoicism can Teach us About Living a Meaningful Life
For many years, I have waded through countless philosophies, ideas, and beliefs to help better my life. Throughout all of these, two forms of thought resonated the strongest with me. The first comes from the Stoic philosophy originating in ancient Greece. The next comes from a form of therapy, called logotherapy, developed by Viktor Frankl after his experiences as a prisoner in the Holocaust. Coincidentally, I soon realized these two systems of thought shared many commonalities with each other.
In this article, I will address two core teachings that both systems share. The first pertains to how we perceive and react to misfortunes in life. The second revolves around making the most out of our limited time on this planet.
It seems we often consider ourselves the victims in this game of life. When things go poorly, we let the uncontrollable events dictate our emotions and actions. When we have been mistreated or wronged, we let these occurrences determine how we live.
One of the core teachings of the stoic philosophers was to realize that, while we cannot always control outside events, our perception of them and how we react to them are all our own doing. If one has control over their mind, they can dictate how they act in any situation. As one of the most famous Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, writes, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” This same thought is taught by another Stoic, Epictetus:
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
This philosophy is not unique to the Stoics and has been reiterated by many throughout history. One of the most famous examples comes from literature’s favorite Prince of Denmark: Hamlet. After a spiraling set of events that leave Hamlet in a state of depression, he remarks how Denmark is the worst prison on Earth. When his friend, Rosencrantz, disagrees with him, Hamlet explains that it isn’t for him to say. Everything is the perception of the individual. He explains, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
But how true is this sentiment? While it seems nice in theory to accept that external events are beyond our control and that we only have power over our mind, is this really something attainable?
In the 1940s, this philosophy was put to the ultimate test. World War II brought one of the lowest moments in humanity’s history. During the Holocaust, millions were taken from their families to be killed or kept as prisoners in concentration camps.
So in this dark hour, how did the Stoic’s advice hold up? The psychologist Viktor Frankl was one of the many Jewish prisoners to experience these horrors firsthand. After surviving the Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Kaufering, and Türkheim concentration camps, Frankl and his fellow prisoners had experienced what would seem like enough to crush even the mightiest soul. Despite this, Frankl writes:
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 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 Frankl explains how, at what is possibly humanity’s darkest point, the victims of concentration camps were able to choose how they reacted to such horrid conditions. When pushed to the limits, the wisdom of our ancestors still seemed valid. We are often presented with terrible misfortunes in life, but the way we react and handle them is all our own doing.
This sentiment is obviously easier said than done. When reading of Frankl’s experience, I found the mental strength those prisoner’s possessed inspiring. They had the ability to control their reactions in that Hell on Earth. While most of us will never even remotely experience the same hardships those prisoners did, I believe we should all strive to follow in their example. In doing so, we can better equip ourselves to face the challenges that come our way. My personal efforts in attempting this has helped me alleviate anxiety and improve my perceptions of the negative events that come my way. If you practice this philosophy with the small daily misfortunes, you can better prepare yourself for the more challenging times that tend to follow. The person who sees every small mishap in life as a reason to give up will often only perpetuate this habit when given a catastrophe. On the other hand, someone who always strives to accept outside events as uncontrollable and does their best to react accordingly to the small issues will likely be able to cope better to the major downfalls as well.
While Frankl was living in these camps, he also realized how valuable our one life and the allotted time we have is. This realization helped him formulate his own form of therapy called logotherapy. Logotherapy pertains to finding one’s meaning in life and pursuing it wholeheartedly. We all have one life to live and if we don’t make the most of it, the end will come before we know it. The Stoics were also aware of this and often remarked on it in their works. The Stoic Seneca writes,
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.
In order to always live with this idea of mortality in mind, Frankl explains that one should,
Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!
If we are to live as if this is our second chance in life and we have to make the most of it, perhaps we can truly find what makes us passionate and pursue it. We will no longer waste away at meaningless frivolities.
Using our own mortality as inspiration to live a more meaningful life is not a new concept. This same philosophy was reiterated nearly 2000 years prior by Marcus Aurelius when he wrote, “Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live, according to nature, the remainder that is allowed you.” Another 500 years prior to Aurelius, Confucius iterated the same idea when he wrote,
We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.
Often, the worst moments in life and history are where we have the most to learn. So let us not squander away the incredibly valuable lessons we can gain from the terrible atrocities of the Holocaust. While it may seem like life has dealt us an unfair hand, remember that we are in control to how we play the cards. If the prisoners of concentration camps could choose to be kind and generous after life seemingly took away everything from them, then surely we can bear our hardships and be in control of how we react to them. And let us not take our one life for granted. Let’s realize what the Stoics taught and what Frankl learned the hard way: our one life is short and it is up to us to make the most of it. To squander it away in a meaningless way is to do a disservice to ourselves. Let us strive not to be the old man who shows a long life lived only by his age and grey hairs, but instead by a long list of meaningful memories and contributions to those around him.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy some of my other work:
Society is built on abstraction
Throughout any given day, we encounter thousands of machines and technologies. The inner workings and principles behind…
10 Quotes That Could Change Your Outlook on Life
It may seem odd that a single quote could “change your outlook on life”. Personally, I have seen the effects they can…
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: https://amzn.to/2N3ziHW
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: https://amzn.to/2PRnbzK
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life: https://amzn.to/2PSoqic