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Decision for freedom

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... and one would hardly have dared to believe it - namely that in Auschwitz everyone could decide for himself whether he wanted to be good or evil. And this decision did not depend at all on whether one was Jewish, Polish or German; and it did not even depend on whether one belonged to the SS. [1] 

This statement by Hannah Arendt touched me deeply. Isn't it common to automatically classify the SS officer in the concentration camp among the bad guys?

And a Jew who innocently dies in the gas chamber, is he not of necessity one of the good guys?

And how does one come to have such a free will that can decide for the good in the midst of evil?

With my own will, in the vast majority of cases, I have had the experience that it depends on many external and internal factors that force me to want in a certain way.

Disposition, upbringing, conditioning, social pressures - yes, sometimes things as banal as the weather, a book, digestion, a phone call made beforehand can decisively influence my will.

How often have I done what I did not want to do?

How often have I done what I had firmly resolved to do in a completely different way at the decisive moment - sometimes having done even the exact opposite?

I am thus in the best company with Paul, who laments in Romans 7:19-24:

For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! 

Paul thus distinguishes between the outer, material man, who is subject to the law of sin, of separation from God, and the inner, spiritual man, who lives according to the eternal, spiritual law.

In this duality lies both a curse and a blessing. A curse, because according to our material nature we are prisoners in the law of cause and effect, from which we cannot free ourselves by our own strength. At the same time, through the inner, spiritual human being, we have the possibility of participating in a completely different, absolutely free and imperishable nature.

In every human being such an inner, spiritual being is asleep or is already awakening. The more consciousness this being attains, the freer and clearer we can make our choice. And so we have the freedom at every moment to choose one of the two natures and their laws.

At this point, let us return to Auschwitz in the last years of the war. There we meet the prisoner Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychologist who published his observations on human nature after the war in the booklet Yes to Life in spite of Everything.

I find it very impressive that in a place of absolute external imprisonment and bondage, of all places, the essence of human freedom could be expressed so clearly.

Viktor Frankl writes:

While the anxiety of most was the question: Will we survive the camp? Because if not, then this suffering has no meaning - in contrast, the question that beset me was different: Does all this suffering, this dying around us, have a meaning? Because if not, then in the end there would be no point in surviving the camp. For a life whose meaning stands or falls with the fact that one gets away with it or not, whose meaning depends on the graces of such a coincidence, such a life would not actually be worth living at all.[2]

So what constitutes the meaning of a life?

Viktor Frankl says that it never really matters what we can expect from life, but only what life expects from us.[3]

In contrast to the animal, which only reacts according to its instincts, the human being always has the freedom to consciously question and change his inner attitude to things. This quality raises him above the animal and no human being can take this freedom away from him.

It arises from the existence of that inner, spiritual, eternal man of whom we spoke earlier.

Viktor Frankl saw suffering in the concentration camp as a unique opportunity to grow beyond oneself. Every prisoner there had the choice to capitulate to his suffering and perish or to endure it with dignity in order to triumph over it and thus gain the greatest possible profit from it.

C.G. Jung once said that the greatest and most significant problems of life are all fundamentally unsolvable. One can only grow beyond them. You have to confront your fears in order to overcome them.

In this way, Viktor Frankl forcefully proved to himself and his fellow sufferers that we need not just be victims of our circumstances, but that in every life situation lies a great opportunity to choose life and our freedom over and over again, the freedom to learn what every crisis offers us in terms of possibilities for development.

So this little booklet gives me the realisation: It is not decisive what happens to me on the outside. It is not in my hands either. But how I face things, how I deal with the situation, is something I can decide freely. And doesn't the most difficult task offer the greatest opportunity to overcome something that has hindered me up to now?

Let's let Viktor Frankl speak again:

So what is the human being? He is the being that always decides what it is. He is the being who invented the gas chambers; but at the same time he is also the being who went into the gas chambers: upright and with a prayer on his lips.[4] 

 


[1] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, Leben, Werk und Zeit, erweiterte Ausgabe, e-book 2016 Philosophy

[2] Viktor Frankl, Trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen, 12. edition, München 2009, p. 104

[3] Op. Cit. p. 117

[4] Op. cit. p. 131

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