Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Decency, part IV—what is to give light must endure burning

This essay is illustrated with a
photograph of an Apsara from Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

The title of this piece is a quote from Viktor Frankl.

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "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. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally 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. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

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 the 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. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.

Frankl, after enduring the horrors of the concentration camp, came away from the experience with the impression that there are only two kinds of people in the world: decent people and non-decent people.

 What I find so extraordinary about this quote is the way that the man expresses enduring our sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — as a real achievement. 

 it's an inner achievement, not an outer one — and if we could achieve this one thing and an inward way, it would be greater than all the outward things we can ever do. One thing. It would be that great.

It astonishes me — perhaps it shouldn't — that insights of this nature came from such objectively evil outward circumstances; and yet, I think, this is the only way that good can ever be born — directly in the presence of evil, in its face, so to speak, rising up to look it in the eye and in goodness itself, in sheer defiance of what evil is. This is what the devil is for.

I was born in 1955, over a decade after these horrors finally ended. It was another nine years before my parents took me to a concentration camp, where I was able — in so far as it is ever possible — to look this evil in the eye and know it for what it was. I'll never forget standing there in the halls of Bergen-Belsen looking at the photographs of the dead and dying; the difference between what is decent and what is not was clear there, and I realized that this planet is nothing like what we imagine it to be, just as we are nothing will like what we imagine ourselves as. This — this horror — is actually what we have inside of us, and every human being is called at one way or another during the course of their life to stand up in the face of it and say no.

It may seem like a long way from being cruel and angry towards another person to the concentration camps, but I'm not sure that it is that far at all. The distance always lies within ourselves, and so it is always an intimate one — a step that is crossed without any physical, outward evidence. One does not have to go from New York to Paris to be evil. It all happens inside the parameters of being.

If I want to find love, I have to suffer what I am. 

And in order to do that, there has to be a fire in me.


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