Viktor’s Victory: What Mental Illness Can’t Take Away from You

Some of the most troubling questions we who struggle with mental illness face are: Can we ever set ourselves free of our painful circumstances? Do we hold the choice to determine our destiny? Are we fatally chained to our never-ending oppressing condition? Can we decide who we want to be?

Searching for Meaning

Very few individuals possess the wisdom and legitimacy to answer these questions. Viktor Frankl is one of those few. He endured three years in four concentration camps. His book Man’s Search for Meaning sold over 16 million copies, was translated into 24 languages, and was named by the Library of Congress as one of the most important books of the 20th century. On September 2nd, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death.

Frankl writes:

“[in the camps] …there were always choices to made. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” Page 66.

Faced with starvation, degradation, unimaginable pain, and suffering, Frankl declared that no matter the circumstances, we always retain one choice: how we decide to react. Maintaining dignity and showing compassion can never be taken from us. There is a part of the Self which remains under our control. Nobody, but ourselves, can rob us of the ultimate choice about how we face life. Our reactions are our last impenetrable existential refuge.  

I will never minimize your struggle with mental illness. That suffering is real. But I will encourage you to remain the master of your reactions. The “I decide how I react” entails powerful healing.   

What Choice?

But what choice should we make? Our choice is not only internal. In deplorable conditions, we can rise to the pinnacle of human virtue. Our pain Frankl teaches, must propel us toward goodness:

“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 away from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Page 66.

Embracing compassion and responsibility, we set ourselves free of oppressing circumstances. In the act of goodness, we become full agents. We slap pain on its face by bringing joy to somebody’s face. 

Illness and Self-Determination

Mental illness induces self-deprecation. We immerse ourselves in an endless lamentation. We complain to survive. We collapse to elicit compassion. We self-destruct to excuse our giving up. Victor Frankl teaches us that those ultimately are our choices. There is no fatality in our illness. The illness aches but does not determine us. The end of the sentence I’m… belongs to you.

Frankl shares:

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him-mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.” Page 66.

The question is not what illness you have but what kind of person you long to become. That decision can’t be taken from you.

Frankl’s Demand

You may think that Frankl demands too much; that he is unrealistic. I agree. Sometimes I feel that he is too unique and strong and that in his place, I would have been one of the first to give up in a concentration camp. But a good teacher must expect the best from his disciples. He must stretch them to their limits. Though he challenges us, Frankl still writes in a loving tone. He cares. He pushes us to excel rather than lose faith. How much do we owe those who expected from us more than we thought we could achieve?

Bipolar is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Auschwitz. Still, the enormity of Frankl’s pain should not diminish ours. It must instead instill in us a sense of perspective and responsibility. It must inspire us to surpass our circumstances. On the anniversary of his death, I would like to honor him by promising not to give up on myself.

The gates of choice remain open before us. Their key is our heart and deeds. 

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Beacon Press: Boston), 2006

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