In the concentration camps, small things became big. They also turned into warning signs. "When we saw a partner smoking his cigarettes instead of exchanging them for food, we already knew that he had given up on relying on his strength to go on and that, once he lost the will to live, he rarely recovered," said psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. speaking of his stay in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.
Frankl realized he wasn't always the youngest and strongest surviving in concentration camps. Many people who apparently had no chance to survive overcame that horror. The key? A rich inner life sustained by the meaning of life, a future goal, something to strive for and to cling to.
Don't look outside, look inside
Our society - at least what we were until yesterday - lived completely concentrated on the outside. He encouraged us to seek satisfaction from our inner dissatisfaction with things. He pushed us to keep ourselves constantly busy, to do more and more, to buy more and more. In a state of perennial sedation that alienated thought and distanced us more and more from ourselves.
Suddenly all of this stopped and many found themselves without any holds, experiencing a real withdrawal syndrome. Abstinence from that constant stream of external stimuli with which consciousness was anesthetized.
But to cope with extreme situations we need to develop a richer inner life. Look inside. Be aware of ourselves. Stop looking for strength by looking outside and find that strength within us. It is about taking on the challenge. The times we have had to live. The particular conditions of each.
"That intensification of the inner life" allows us to "find shelter from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of existence" when things go wrong, Frankl said.
Nurturing that inner life does not mean closing our eyes to reality, but finding shelter and comfort by going beyond what we can see and touch. "People with rich intellectual lives suffered a lot, but the damage caused to their intimate being was less because they were able to isolate themselves from the terrible environment, taking refuge in a life of inner wealth and spiritual freedom," explained the psychiatrist.
Search for your meaning in life
In the face of extreme challenges, mental strength often supports physical strength. The ability to move forward, no matter what happens, comes from having a reason to fight. And that we can hold onto this with teeth and nails. As Nietzsche would say: “whoever has something to live for, is able to endure anything”.
The meaning of life, the reason for fighting, is unique and inalienable. It is the only property that remains when we reduce ourselves to bare existence, when we touch the bottom emotionally. It is what we cling to and what gives our life meaning beyond life itself. It is what encourages us to say "yes to life", despite everything.
That reason isn't usually found by chance. Frankl was convinced that we need the "will to make sense", which implies being able to discern the essential from the superfluous, have our values clear and set ourselves a future goal, without which it is easy to let circumstances overtake us.
In an exceptional situation, we can "turn life into an internal triumph or ignore the challenge and just vegetate", with the secret hope that everything is a nightmare and that tomorrow, when we open our eyes, everything will be as before.
But when we live in exceptional situations - those that turn our psychological world upside down - nothing will ever be the same. Anyone who has found their strength will be able to take it with them to face the new challenges that will come. This time with more confidence and serenity.