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Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

The Last Human Freedom

We all want to feel free and powerful.

The challenge is, many of us feel coerced by the responsibilities of life. We feel we “have to” go to work and pay our bills. We “have to” be home at a certain time. We “have to” go to the dance recital and the soccer game. Life requires things of us, and therefore, we believe we can’t be free.

Until we get a look at the life of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who described and witnessed “the last human freedom” in the death camps. According to Viktor, there’s a sense that we’re always free. Even when our circumstances look the opposite.

Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz

Frankl ran the “suicide pavilion” at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna between 1933 and 1937, then started in private practice. A year later, the Nazis took over Austria, and four years after that, September 25, 1942, they deported Frankl, a Jew, with his wife and his parents, to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Two years later the Nazis moved Viktor and his wife Tilly to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother Elsa and his brother Walter died there in Auschwitz. The Nazis moved Tilly to another camp, where she died as well. Viktor and his sister Stella were the only survivors in his immediate family.

For three years in camps Frankl observed the suffering and death of his family, his friends, his people. He got a front-row look at the depravity, the coercion, the helplessness, the agony. He was forced to march for miles, barefoot, with hardly any clothes in freezing weather. He saw fellow prisoners lose their minds.

The Last Human Freedom

But he saw something else amid the coercion and horror. Here’s how he described it in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“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.”1

We can’t control all the circumstances of life. But we can control the way we respond to the circumstances.

  • We can control the way we think about our circumstances.
  • We can offer comfort to others despite our own suffering and pain.
  • We can find something good and focus on it.
  • We can give to others, even when they don’t give in return.
  • We can forgive offenses and overlook insults.

We have tremendous power within us, even in what seems to be a totally powerless situation. “When we are no longer able to change a situation,” Frankl said, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”

When it seems like life is controlling us, we can remember that our response to life is always in our control. Every challenge of life becomes a test of our freedom. There’s a fundamental power in human nature, a power to choose the most constructive response to every situation. Every situation is a test of that power, an opportunity to keep our sense of freedom, no matter what happens.

Will we choose right and pass the test?

1Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1984).

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