“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” -Viktor E. Frankl
I came across the quote while rereading one of my favorite books, one of those books you reread every couple of years until it falls apart at the seam. This book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was written by an Austrian psychiatrist who survived both Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, whose only crime was being Jewish in a Nazi world.
Half of the book talks about what it was like living under the most horrendous, inhumane conditions imaginable, living in a place where just showing a hint of weakness could brand you as “useless” and could mean you were sent to your death in a “shower” of poisonous gases and then burned to ashes. Dr. Frankl determined that as long as he lived in this hellish place, he would make a study of the way people, including himself, reacted to these extremely abnormal circumstances. He hoped that his insights would be of use to people even long after his death. And they most certainly have been.
It seems to me that one of the greatest insights Frankl discovered during that time, and that is relevant to every human being living everywhere, no matter what the circumstances, is this:
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, the freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you feel and do about what happens to you.
In the camps, on the very first day, one was stripped of everything they had ever had: their families, their friends, their money, their importance, their careers, their responsibilities, their control, their clothes, their shoes, their jewelry, their hair (they were shaved head to toe)….and even their names. They were tattooed with numbers which became their only identity within the camp from then on. Literally stripped naked of everything that had previously formed their identity, they were left with only one thing still under their control: how they would respond. No one can take this freedom away from us, ever. While many people in such circumstances succumb to the temptation to crawl their way over everyone else to save their own life (and certainly this is understandable), there were those who kept forever focused on a higher purpose, a cause for hope, a refusal to become just like the animals who were torturing them. As Frankl believed, having a WHY to live enables people to bear the HOW to live, even in the worst of circumstances.
All of this makes me so very aware of how fortunate we are as children of the living God. The answer to WHY we live starts with being created in His image. We have a purpose in seeing His Kingdom established on earth as it is in heaven. We are called to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. And we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Knowing these things as the WHY of life, we are enabled to deal with the HOW of life. When Frankl says, as in the quote at the beginning of this devotional, that success and happiness are the unintended side-effects of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself, we can see that we, as Believers, are poised for the greatest success and joy just by giving our lives to God, letting Him live within us, and by following His ways, no matter what our surroundings.
Most of us, hopefully, will never experience anything like a concentration camp. We do, however, face trials and hardships, sickness and limitations, injustices and offenses, losses and grief in many different ways throughout our lives. How will we respond to those? It may be easy and understandable to become bitter, negative, vengeful or even despairing in the face of the trials, but if we can just step back a bit and remember the bigger picture, remember Who has given us life and purpose and hope, we might walk through life in a better way, with head lifted high.
Frankl says, “We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however he is also that being that entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. Phil 1:21
The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Gal 2:20
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for My sake will find it. Mt 16:25
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?