Today’s pages (p55-60) start with what must be one of the most shockingly apposite analogies in literature.
[A] man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
The choice to use ‘gas’ for the metaphor is both macabre and entirely fitting.
Under different circumstances Viktor Frankl’s relativist stance could be mocked, but born as it was from the most abject of experience, it carries instead enormous moral and historical weight.
The relativism of suffering finds its parallel in that ‘a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys’ – such as the ‘dance of joy’ when he and his fellow inmates realised they were not bound for a concentration camp with a gas chamber, but ‘only’ for Dachau.
‘Small mercies’ were a cause to give thanks: one was considered lucky if one avoided a violent foreman, a dangerous job, or were able to work inside a factory instead of out in the cold.
But these relative pleasures provided only ‘a kind of negative happiness’. When Frankl drew up a ‘balance sheet’ of ‘real positive pleasures’, he could count only two in many weeks.
Many years after his release from Auschwitz, Frankl was shown a magazine photograph of unwell prisoners in a concentration camp sick bay. The person showing him the photograph remarked on how ‘terrible’ it looked. But Frankl was confused – why?
He remembers his experience of spending 4 days in the sick bay – and how content he was, how glad to be sick, and ‘happy in spite of everything’. Those 4 precious days when he did not have to work himself to death in a snowstorm were ‘a lifesaver’.
When I explained, my listeners understood why I did not find the photograph so terrible: the people shown on it might not have been so unhappy after all.