Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away— that makes life meaningful and purposeful. (Frankl 75-76)
I used to know the men and women who vacuumed and dusted and owned our offices. When I first came to Hardin-Simmons, these custodians (caretakers who had custody of our offices, our buildings, who cared for our things and for us) worked during the daytime, so we got to know each other. Most were retirees, often in their seventies, at least so seemed the two elderly men who would stop in my office during their afternoon break to have a cup of coffee and sit for a spell. I had recently turned thirty-one. What did I know? I think their names were Mr. Painter and Mr. Black. Mr. Black had been the premier Cadillac mechanic in Abilene, probably in all of West Texas. I’ve forgotten what Mr. Painter did. I know he had an adolescent daughter he was raising, and he feared he would die before she graduated. Who would take care of her? Dr. Lawrence Clayton, Dr. Delores Washburn, and I went to the two men’s funerals. There were probably others from Abilene Hall who attended. Delores would remember.
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. (Frankl 75)
For the past couple of weeks, my freshmen writers and I have been discussing Viktor Frankl’s “Experiences In A Concentration Camp,” Part One of Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl’s first-hand account of surviving (1942-1945) four German SS concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Around eight years ago, I discussed the book with another class of freshmen writers. When I went home at night, I would leave the book on my desk. Then, after we had concluded our study, and the students had written an essay over what they learned from the reading, I placed Man’s Search For Meaning back on the shelf. A week or so later, when I opened the office one morning, I discovered the book lying in the middle of my desk with a note taped to the cover.
Willie’s note thanked me for sharing Frankl’s book. Willie had been reading it during the long hours of his night shift caring for Abilene Hall. I tried to remember if I had seen Willie. What did he look like? We conversed by means of notes and shared books. He told me some of his story—incarcerations, paroles, Big Spring’s hospital. He planned to leave the job at HSU soon, but he was grateful for my library. Frankl was his favorite. Willie understood Viktor Frankl. He said he was not as angry as he had been. Willie also read some baseball books. He left me a present of a new hardback baseball novel. It was his last night. He wasn’t going back to Big Spring.
This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here— I am here—I am life, eternal life.’ ” (Frankl 77-78)
Reading Frankl has caused me to think about all of you, about all who have come before you, how you have faced illness and grief and done so with courage I can’t fathom. And your suffering has been bearable compared to having to watch your children, your wives and husbands, your parents, your siblings, your best friends suffer and decline. I could fill most of this page with your names and the names of those no longer with us. What Frankl’s book has shamed me into realizing is that I never tell you how much I admire you, your courage, your faith, your love, your stamina—getting up each morning and going about the business of making the world better, making me better just by watching you improve the day at Hardin-Simmons. Thank you.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search For Meaning, 3rd ed, Simon & Schuster, 1984.