In today’s pages (p78-83), Viktor Frankl addresses the dangers of the past, the sufferings of the present and the promise of the future.
For concentration camp prisoners, the ‘most depressing influence’ on their psychology was the fact that no one knew how long they would remain imprisoned for. This created, in the words of one unnamed research psychologist, a ‘provisional existence’, to which Frankl adds ‘of unknown limit’.
Most prisoners came to the camp knowing nothing of the conditions under which they would live. Once they arrived, that uncertainty of existence switched to when they would be released.
With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.
This uncertainty of limit made it very hard to for prisoners to live a purposeful life. The situation is comparable to that faced by an unemployed worker, who also lives a provisional life.
A man who could not see the end of his ‘provisional existence’ was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life.
The hardship of the present and the lack of a future meant that many prisoners found refuge in the past. Although perhaps comforting, this retrospective rumination was, according to Frankl, somewhat dangerous.
Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless. … The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed.
Such a loss of faith usually happened suddenly, ‘in the form of a crisis’, with familiar symptoms. The victim simply gave up on life.
Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash … No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. … He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him any more.
Frankl himself would force his thoughts to turn to his future, for example imagining himself giving a lecture to a full audience on the psychology of the concentration camp. He quotes Spinoza:
Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.