A broken heart is tremendous baggage to carry. It is a strange presence. Some of it sits on my chest like a sacred rock, neither too light nor too heavy. Like a stone with a forgiving heart. On the knock of a heavy memory, its heart melts off the heaviness of mine so that I can breathe in respite. The rest of it is like a shadow—a shapeless, weightless, stubborn creature that has a mind and will of its own. In the blink of an eye, it can spread from a tiny fragment into a canvas sailing you towards darkness. Those who had been on such a journey know all about the shrewd hands of this sailor. I know its map, its ways, its leaps. I have been under its influence—sick with darkness. However, with whatever will I bear in my bones, I pledged not to surrender my sanity to its witless, merciless stings. So I took caution. With one piece at a time, I cut off its knots, shredded its dense spread down, collected the pieces in a brown sack, and dumped the bag in the currents of a busy life. I trained my consciousness to never set its eyes and ears on arousing conversations, never encouraged others to pick up on their own mess. I was doing well. The nihilist in me was safe in the nihilism of eventuality, in the finality of the end moment. I was wise, resilient, and progressive with my soul shoved in prudent routines. Self-help books were not for me and I wasn’t for the patronizing conversations. My only weapon was time. I trusted its experience. And time went on. Almost a decade passed by without many dramatic episodes. The trick seemed to be working until one fateful day. Through the Secret Santa book-gifting endeavor organized by the Jaipur Book Lovers club, I received a parcel. Since I was expecting it, like any book lover, the first thing I tested was its thickness. I touched it. It felt thin. Very thin. I was offended by having to know about the stingy heart of my Santa. How deep, how broad, how fluid could it be if its ink deliberately dried up covering merely 200 pages. I need more than four sittings just to let a book sink in. To top it off, the title had a word, the most intimidating word symbolizing self-help. In a fit of disappointment, I staged it up on my bookshelf. I passed by it and onto better books. The book was Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It wasn’t just a book sitting there, it was the irony mocking my paralyzed guts. But it was the sweetest of ironies ever to hammer my pride. And here is Man’s Search for Meaning-my story behind reading Viktor Frankl’s classic. And so it goes!
“Suddenly a cry broke from the ranks of the anxious passengers, “There is a sign, Auschwitz!” Everyone’s heart missed a beat at the moment.”
I remember the time when my heart skipped a beat just like that almost a decade ago in an empty, silent cabin echoing a dreadful piece of news. I felt the last beat settling down with a thud. It is one of those few instances where time can not keep up with its pace. In fact, it doesn’t matter. You, with all the noise around, can hear it, feel it going down deep in the darkness. From that moment on, your old heart is dead. All that aches, thumps, and pours out is a strange, hostile rock in your own body, eating away your courage. Going back to Viktor who is still not psychologically introduced to life in the concentration camps, reduced to a number inked on a forearm, he is struggling with the sudden but intimate interaction with his nakedness. What happens to a body when a body is all that you possess. The acute removal of an identity cultivated by ornamental layering with something as simple as glasses triggers a phenomenon. How fast can a human mind throw a philosophical construct to a body racing for survival in face of ever-looming death? Man’s Search for Meaning was a painlessly painful reminder of all I once bore, though nowhere even close to the horrors of the Holocaust. And yet, the very purpose of the book is enabling just that. The book was working. In my case, way too well. Frankl’s last material link to his former life is his glasses and a leather belt that he would later exchange for a loaf of bread. The question of nakedness presents another lead into a spiritual inquiry about the frailty of the human body as well as its enormous endurance. But I think he means about the ones enforced from the outside. And the disease, certainly, doesn’t count especially the one that has made its home inside a body. The shrinking human body that can’t process food and the one in Frankl’s world that did not have any food to process is the same. They both express themselves brutally when tempered with. While watching him trying a new set of basic plain Tees, I glanced upon the shrunk muscle on its way to oblivion. Brutal, because it triggers curiosity.
“Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction towards certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries.”
And I thought I was behaving funny without any sense or reason left in my body. I couldn’t help but read, read, and read more about Glomerulonephritis, prognosis numbers, life-long expectancy, and dependability. Symptoms were the most favorite. To keep eliminating one to make space for another formed a hobby that I still maintain. At the knock of a cough or unexplained pain, I inhabit Google and travel the medical universe. Meanwhile, out there in the book, the mortal body is at its best display. All primitive instincts are returning to haunt our imprisoned psychiatrist busy observing the human body showing off its deep colors in the concentration camp. Most of the prisoners’ dreams are about food, conversations are about recipes, fantasies are about dining at family reunions. Sex is almost absent. But love, which I wasn’t expecting to be categorized as a primitive need and that too at the hands of a Jew in a concentration camp surprised me, melted me, ventilated me. The floodgates opened. They stayed open for quite some time. The dry mouth was tasting the salt of a wounded, broken heart.
“If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life, I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
In all those countless moments when we didn’t bother to talk to each other, when silly sibling fights became a matter of prestige, when the dysfunctional family system bewildered our civility, it never occurred to me that we were all craving for love. It was time for truth to come out and a Play Station to break the ice. All families need a push, ours needed a crisis. Those were the only nine months when I was closest to him. Too late, too little. As the book would tell, in the epic tug of war between body and mind, it was foolish, even in evolutionary terms, to mitigate an existential crisis on the sole premise of mortality. Religion or spirituality, whatever makes you hopelessly romantic or tragically optimistic, is the best tool at your disposal. Mine was the truth. His too. We were Neitzsches without the mustache. Our truths could be better found in solitude. But I didn’t think solitude to be a good idea when life’s days are numbered. Viktor doesn’t agree.
“The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearned for privacy and solitude. After my transportation to the ‘rest’ camp, I had the rare fortune to be alone for five minutes at a time. I just sat and looked at the green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape framed by the meshes of the barbed wire. My thoughts wandered north, in the direction of my home, but I could only see clouds.”
The torments the inmates and the author faced on their hearts and will to live could only be healed by something greater than the pain. That could only come by from finding meaning in suffering. As much romantic as it sounds, there is no dignity, no pride, no consolation in suffering needlessly, in vain, in illusions of higher life, in a life reduced to waiting in anxiety, in lying, in pushing the last straw to a drowning man, in pulling up a brave face above a scared heart and trembling existence. But when life is reduced to a conflict between survival and death, between hope and death, between truth and meaning, Viktor chose ‘meaning’. Not just him, hundreds of others, all who embraced purpose and gave some semblance to their suffering, surprisingly emerged as survivors, even though they had the frailest of bodies.
Yet it is possible to practice the art of living in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If certain quantity of gas is to be pumped into a chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus, suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter the suffering is great or little. Therefore, the size of suffering is absolutely, relative.
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn and furthermore, teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
“I told my comrades that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that his infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.”
What Viktor speaks through his book is in no way comparable, measurable, or relatable to my own share of having to see death. Not until having watched it closely or stayed in its constant shadow, one can truly comprehend its grip on the hearts, minds, and will of the helpless spectators. To breathe in the knowledge of impending death is the bravest act I know of. But this bravery is neither heroic nor idolatry. It is a mere act of survival. Perhaps, for both dying and the living. Since dead don’t know they are dead, the suffering afterward is for the living. It was my turn to let go of the past, to let go of the last straw, to forget about the degrading human body, the purple spots on the skin all over, drooping eyes, flesh leaving the bones, and to finally forget the horrors of seeing a body being smoked out of a chimney. I closed the chapter and let my mind (and not at all the heart) do all the searching. I arrived at Nihilism. I didn’t know until then that there were studies dedicated to this subject. After years of searching for answers, navigating through both life and books, a new philosophy entered my life. I was soon an existentialist, which is nothing but a more hopeful, resilient nihilist.
I never had the courage until I read Man’s Search For Meaning to allow myself to be dragged down in that dark shadow, once and for all, to ask the most painful question: if he understood all this turbulence; if he found meaning in his sufferings that were far greater than mine. I knew his soul without knowing anything about his life just like the way you understand someone from the books he reads, the authors he likes, from the music he enjoys, the movies he watches, and the humor he keeps. We shared the same taste. It was our world against the one outside, only if one soul could inhabit two mortals. I still don’t know the answer. The only meaning, the only sense I could find in my brother’s death was to know that we are all mortal, that our will, even though is neither truly ours nor truly free, can still be trusted upon, can still be welded stronger. That even though life as we know it is devoid of any meaning but it doesn’t mean that meaning can not be crafted out of its misery and suffering.
This is my story of reading and writing about Man’s Search for Meaning.
P.S. I dedicate this post to my Secret Santa (Anurag Bhatnagar) to whom I’ll be always grateful for giving the best gift of my life ever!