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The Key to Survival in Auschwitz and Bedford Falls

Part 3 in an exploration of Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.

by
Rhonda Robinson

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October 29, 2013 - 1:00 pm
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Inspired by a dream in 1943, Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a heart-warming short story titled “The Greatest Gift.  When he failed to find a publisher, the author sent it out as his Christmas card the following year, no doubt inspiring friends and family alike. You probably recognize the movie version of the story that came out in 1946 as It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the film, George plans on traveling the world and then dabbling in college before heading off to build skyscrapers. He offers to “lasso the moon” for his sweetheart. Then life, as it often does, gets in the way of his plans. As dilemmas and circumstances come at him from all angles, he is confronted with decisions to make. One by one, he makes the right moral choice. There is always a price to pay for doing what’s right, rather than what seems pleasurable. Bit by bit, George’s future is exchanged for the needs of the present. Until at last, there is nothing left of the future he once envisioned, and he becomes suicidal.

In spite of all that, George is extremely lucky. He lives in the world of fiction where a rosy-cheeked guardian angel can change his entire life by altering reality for him. Then, when the hard lessons are learned, he can change it back again so George can enjoy the rest of his life in the light of his newfound knowledge.

What exactly did he learn?

Each life has a profound impact on the world around him. His angel scolded,

You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you—the gift of life, of being a part of this world and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.

Viktor Frankl learned a similar lesson that very same Christmas. However, it did not come in a dream. Frankl lived in the real world, where some of life’s most profound lessons are not taught by kind men with peaceful blue eyes. Instead, they are learned at the cruel hand of fate and a reality that allows no escape from sorrow. 

Frankl writes:

The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience…the explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.

Unlike George, these men were not denying the gift of life they had been given. They were clawing for it. For the prisoners of Auschwitz, their salvation was within their grasp once they realized what it was.

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Top Rated Comments   
I disagree. It's a Wonderful Life doesn't convey a message of conformity and settling for less. It conveys a message of sacrifice and making the important choices and seeking for what's TRULY important in life.
I've always liked that film, but after going through a combat tour in Afghanistan, it really speaks to me. George starts out in life with his big dreams of world travel, being a member of the National Geographic Society, and maybe getting a couple of harems. He gives up his childish dreams in order to finish his father's business, take care of his mother, be a husband and father, and to make sure his community has someone to turn to so they can get a decent home, instead of grubbing out their existence to pay rent for one of Potter's drafty shanties.
When I was a kid, I wanted to run a hot rod shop. I ended up giving up that dream because I felt it was more important to serve God as a missionary, and to serve my country as a Soldier, and to allocate my pay so that my kids could have a home to live in and food to eat. My time is allocated so that I can spend what little time the Army gives me with my wife and kids. My automotive skills are spent keeping the minivan and my sedan operational. Now that my father-in-law has passed on, I maintain cars for my wife's mother and sisters as well. I go to bed every night exhausted from serving the people around me. I brought home a screaming case of PTSD from my combat tour as well. The scene where George trashes his house and then has to apologize to his kids always moves me to tears, because I know what it's like to have to ask my kids for forgiveness when I've allowed my troubles to turn my into a monster that yells too much at my kids for little things when I should be talking to them and showing them that I love them so much I'd die for them.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that he giveth his life for his friends." Some people give their lives by dying in combat. Some people give their lives by putting their family, community, or nation ahead of their own childish interests. George Bailey is the latter. Conformity- I think not. If George Baily was conformist, he'd be like much of society: selfish. It's a Wonderful Life is a reminder that the happiest life is the life lived selfLESSLY, not selfISHLY. It's a masterpiece.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (10)
All Comments   (10)
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I get the idea that losing hope has an effect on survivability, but I have to question the Metaphor you use for Auschwitz...

Christmas?
The inmates death rate when up MOST around CHRISTMAS?

No offense, but wouldn't Hanukkah be more accurate?

Why would (predominantly?) Jewish victims become so focused on a Christian milestone?

They thought The Nazi's would be "nice" to them for Christmas, and let them go?
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
From the book:
"It is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all."

and later: "Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it."

The lesson: Perspective is far more important than circumstance.

http://goo.gl/e7sak8
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Except Bedford Falls was not a concentration camp.

If everyone stifled their ambition the way Jimmy Stewart's character did, we would still be living in caves.

It's a Wonderful Life conveys a dangerous message of conformity and settling for less. If Stewart really was a talented architect, then his denying his gifts was literally a sin.

Give me The Fountainhead any day!

"That's all very well for sheep, but what are WE to do??"
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't agree.
Hollywood could not make this movie today. Today it is all about self-interest, seeking one's own dreams and desires and feeling entitled to it, while abandoning duty and responsibility. Note that George's sense of responsibility was not in the context of Enlightened Government. Nor is he a "victim". Instead, it was his own values.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I disagree. It's a Wonderful Life doesn't convey a message of conformity and settling for less. It conveys a message of sacrifice and making the important choices and seeking for what's TRULY important in life.
I've always liked that film, but after going through a combat tour in Afghanistan, it really speaks to me. George starts out in life with his big dreams of world travel, being a member of the National Geographic Society, and maybe getting a couple of harems. He gives up his childish dreams in order to finish his father's business, take care of his mother, be a husband and father, and to make sure his community has someone to turn to so they can get a decent home, instead of grubbing out their existence to pay rent for one of Potter's drafty shanties.
When I was a kid, I wanted to run a hot rod shop. I ended up giving up that dream because I felt it was more important to serve God as a missionary, and to serve my country as a Soldier, and to allocate my pay so that my kids could have a home to live in and food to eat. My time is allocated so that I can spend what little time the Army gives me with my wife and kids. My automotive skills are spent keeping the minivan and my sedan operational. Now that my father-in-law has passed on, I maintain cars for my wife's mother and sisters as well. I go to bed every night exhausted from serving the people around me. I brought home a screaming case of PTSD from my combat tour as well. The scene where George trashes his house and then has to apologize to his kids always moves me to tears, because I know what it's like to have to ask my kids for forgiveness when I've allowed my troubles to turn my into a monster that yells too much at my kids for little things when I should be talking to them and showing them that I love them so much I'd die for them.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that he giveth his life for his friends." Some people give their lives by dying in combat. Some people give their lives by putting their family, community, or nation ahead of their own childish interests. George Bailey is the latter. Conformity- I think not. If George Baily was conformist, he'd be like much of society: selfish. It's a Wonderful Life is a reminder that the happiest life is the life lived selfLESSLY, not selfISHLY. It's a masterpiece.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
It conveys a message of sacrifice and making the important choices and seeking for what's TRULY important in life.

And seeing how common and trite the notion of "sacrifice" is these days, going along with it is simply an act of... conformity.

And truly important - to whom?

Kathy's point is spot on: those who applaud George Bailey's reduction of himself to a means to the ends of others do not account for the flip side of the unseen, the one that the angel dishonestly does not show: the potential benefit to others and to the world that would have followed from George's pursuit of his personal goals.

Look at it this way: suppose you saw another movie just like Wonderful Life, with all the exact same details, but with one key difference: it turns out that George always *wanted* to stay in Bedford Falls, that his life there had been his first choice after all.

Do you think less of him? Is he less admirable, or moral?

If your answer is yes, he's less moral, then you are being more logically consistent than the movie.

Observe how the movie emphasizes the benefits that others reaped from George's sacrifice. Leave aside what that says about those people - that they were incapable of building decent lives on their own without having a productive host to sustain them, which is unrealistic to say the least - and observe the concession to practicality, the insistence that sacrifice can make everyone better off after all, *even you* - i.e. that there's still some leftovers in it for you too, after all.

It was a contrived sugar-coating that the movie needed, to sell in an America that still had a considerable affinity for the founders' idea that a man had the moral right to pursue his own happiness, and could still spot - and reject - the evil.

But not today. Swami is only half right: this movie wouldn't be made today, if only because in today's America we are now sufficiently removed from the founder's moral ideas that the sugar coating would no longer be necessary. We take our altruism straight instead of on the rocks, these days.
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15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your comment is a masterpiece as well.
I was blessed by reading.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
By the way, Man's Search for Meaning was the book that helped me lay my rage and hurt at God's feet and find purpose in my life. Frankl was right. We can suffer almost anything if we have a reason to. As a husband, father, son, and as a Christian, our pain BECOMES our source of strength, because it allows us to sacrifice so much more for the happiness of those around us. Pain is a purifying experience, because it allows the unimportant to drop away and stop distracting us from what's truly important. My father-in-law had rods in his back, but despite the constant daily pain he was in, his passion was growing roses for his wife. He refused to buy her roses from the flower shop, because he said they died too quickly. By the time he died, he had over 100 rosebushes in the yard he cared for. He lived his life and endured pain I can't even understand just to make his wife happy (he ignored her telling him not to hurt himself). Living with constant pain cost him his life, but he did it for love. He's one of my heroes.
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24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dear Rhonda

Your post deserves a comment.

Victor Frankl's book is only second to the Bible in its import in my life.
The passage excerpted above, "it did not really matter what we expected from life, but what life expected from us" has been the touchstone to which I have returned over and over again. I am as weak a vessel as any human being can be, but that phrase has served to buck me up in every instance where life has thrown a combobulation in my path. Another phrase of Frankl's is "there is a lot of suffering to get through in life." He tellls the story of one camp inmate whose body reacted to malnutrition by puffing up with edema. When Frankl saw the inmate again, the edema had dissipated; in response to Frankl"s query his friend explained "I wept it out". Yes, as you have stated, no one gets through life unscathed. We are here in this life to have our character put through the Refiner's fire. Not that all things are good, but that all things work together for good in view of the trust and faith we have in God.

May your memories of your son be the treasure of your life.

24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
JoanE,

"May your memories of your son be the treasure of your life."

What a beautiful perspective-- thank you-- I'll keep that.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
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