A Sign From God

imagesViktor Frankl is the only man I know who voluntarily entered the concentration camps.

Viktor was born 110 years ago — March 26, 1905. He was the founder of Logotherapy and the author of 32 books, including Man’s Search for Meaning. Now in its hundredth American printing, this slender volume has been named one of the ten most influential books in the English language.

After reading Man’s Search for Meaning, I sent Dr. Frankl a letter expressing my admiration. His book had a profound impact on me and I told him so. To my surprise, he answered my letter with a personal note raising questions that encouraged a response. We exchanged letters several times after that before I found an opportunity to meet him. He became a friend and mentor who had a profound influence on my life.

Once in a quiet moment, he told me how he found his path, how he came to be in the concentration camps, and the value of that “abyss experience.”

“When the Nazis came to power,” he said, “I was the head of the neurological department of a Jewish hospital in Vienna. Anti-Semitism was increasing daily and my family and I could see what was coming. Like many people, we began preparing to get out. I applied for a visa to come to America where I could continue my work.

“At the eleventh hour as the Nazis were closing in, the U.S. Consulate informed me a visa had been granted for me to emigrate to the United States. This was the moment I had anticipated for several years and I rushed down to the consulate with great excitement. My enthusiasm fled when I realized the visa was only valid for one. I was confronted by the fact that if I escaped to America, I would have to leave my parents behind.”

In despair Viktor left the embassy and walked in a daze to a park nearby. Covering the yellow Star of David he was compelled to wear on his chest, he sat on the park bench in agony wondering what to do.

“On one hand,” he said, “was safety, the opportunity to work, and nurture my ‘brain child’ — logotherapy. On the other hand, there was the responsibility to take care of my parents by staying with them in Vienna and, rather than leaving them to their fate share it with them.”

What would his parents do if he left, he thought. What could he do if he stayed? Would it make any difference to them or would all be lost?

“At best, if I stayed with my family, I would have the opportunity to be with them and protect them from being deported but who knew for how long before the Gestapo came for us all,” Viktor said. “If I stayed, my work and theories would perish with me.”

Viktor said he sat there, meditating and praying, for more than an hour. Finally, he realized he could not resolve the matter and got up to go home. As he left, he thought that if there ever was a time that a man could use a sign from God, this would be such a time. The issue was beyond human resolution.

Almost immediately upon entering the apartment he shared with his family, Frankl noticed a stone, a piece of marble, on the mantle over the fireplace. He called his father and asked him, “What is this and why is it here?”

“Oh, Viktor,” his father said with some excitement. “I forgot to tell you. I picked it up this morning on the site where the largest synagogue in Vienna stood before the Nazis tore it down.”

“And why did you bring it home?” Viktor asked.

“‘Because I noticed that it is part of the two tablets whereon the Ten Commandments are engraved – you remember, above the altar?’ my father said. In fact, one could see, on the piece of marble, one single Hebrew letter engraved and gilded. ‘Even more,’ my father said, ‘I can tell to which of the Ten Commandments this letter refers because it serves the abbreviation for only one.'”

“I looked at it and had my answer,” Viktor said. “It was the commandment that says, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ At that moment, my decision was clear. I gave up my visa and stayed in Austria. A few months later, the Gestapo closed the hospital. My whole family was arrested and taken to the concentration camps. My mother died in the gas chamber of Auschwitz. My brother died in a coal mine near Auschwitz. My father, weakened from starvation, finally succumbed to pneumonia.”

The only satisfaction in this was that Viktor was able to visit his father in his barracks and be with him in his final hours. As a physician, he could not help but notice the terminal lung edema setting in. He saw his father in pain. He heard his struggle for breath and knew when it was time to use the single ampoule of morphine he had smuggled into the camp.

Viktor waited and watched until the morphine worked. When it showed relief he asked his father if there was anything more he could do for him. They talked for a moment until his father fell peacefully into the sleep Viktor knew would be followed by death.

As he left, Viktor said he knew he would never see his father again, but rather than sadness, he found himself experiencing happiness to a degree he had never known before. There in the concentration camps, the most miserable of experiences, Viktor found his greatest joy. He had honored his father. He had been there for him and stayed with him to the last and as a result had been able to ease his father’s pain.

At the same time, in ways he could not have anticipated, the decision to enter the concentration camp advanced his career and established the credibility of his work.  For it was there that Frankl found the laboratory to test and prove his theories.

Freud believed that if you subject the mass of humanity to deprivation, human differences would be minimized and man would be reduced to fundamental desires, animal instincts, and a single-minded pursuit of survival at all cost.

“Freud was spared to get to know the concentration camps,” Viktor observed. “But we who were there saw not the uniformity he predicted. People became ever more different when confronted by such a tragic situation. They unmasked their real selves – both the swine and the saint.

“In truth, I found it is the orientation toward a meaning to fulfill in the future – after liberation – that more than any other factor gave people the greatest chance to survive even this abyss experience. It is evidence of what I have come to call the self-transcendent quality of a human being – that is, a truly human being is never primarily or basically concerned with himself or herself, or anything within himself or herself; but rather is reaching out of themselves, into the world, toward a meaning to fulfill or another human being to love.”

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The Lesson of the Tree

imagesWhen I was a boy of eight or nine, I was walking through the woods in the mountains near home with my Father when we came upon a large tree that had been cut to clear the path. My father pointed to the rings at the cross section where the tree had been cut and asked if I knew their significance.

I gave him the conventional answer telling him I knew the rings of the tree reflected the tree’s age. My father said that was right and then he expanded that observation in a way I have never been able to forget.

“If you look closely,” he said, “it can also tell you something of the tree’s history.”

Dad pointed to a narrow band near the tree’s center.

“That tells you this was a tough year for this tree. If you count back the rings and determine the date you will probably find that it was a dry year or that the tree faced some other challenge to its growth. Conversely, the broad band tells you the tree had a year of expansive growth.”

“But what is most important is the pattern,” he said. “Broad bands almost invariably follow narrow bands. That’s because in the dry years and difficult periods the tree had to put its roots down deeper in order to survive.”

Like the tree, we are all at times challenged and pushed to the limits of our existence. If we are to survive and grow, we must reach deep and draw on the best part of ourselves. Those who cannot find a purpose in their pain are diminished by it. Those who do are strengthened by the process.

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Who Are The Righteous?

Leila MacauleyAnd the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” (Genesis 18:26)

In every generation since, Jewish tradition holds, there are 36 special people so good as to justify the salvation of mankind.

Who are they?  Where are they?  What makes them so special?

I have spent half my life trying to answer these questions.  The search has taken me far and wide, across this country and beyond.  People by the tens of thousands, men and women of distinction, have provided input.

Following their leads, I have met many people who might qualify to be among The Righteous, but only one I confident enough to identify.  Her name is Leila Macauley. She lives in south Florida and will be 93 on December 24, 2014.

I met Leila twenty-five years ago when I went to Connecticut to interview her husband, Bob. In the preceding six years, Bob had turned AmeriCares into the largest private relief organization in the world.

Bob’s story was the stuff of legends. He had mortgaged his home to save two hundred children he had never met, created a company run on Christian principles, sent mercy flights into Soviet territory before he had permits to land, dispatched a helicopter into a war zone to rescue a single child, and developed a reputation for being the first to respond to any disaster anywhere in the world.

But when Bob learned the nature of my interest, he told me I was talking to the wrong person. He said I should be talking with his wife instead.

“I was very much a bum before I got married,” he said. “I kept all the whisky companies going. I didn’t live a very saintly life. I didn’t do too much good. She made me who I am today. She has been my moral compass.”

At the time, I dismissed his comment as the kind of thing any man might say about his wife, differing only in degree. Then I met Leila.

I soon learned that she cast the deciding vote on whether the family should buy a new car or help fund an orphanage. She was the one who greeted the press on the lawn the day Bob mortgaged the house and answered their questions by saying, “It seems like a good deal to me. The bank gets the house and Bob get’s the kids.” It was her values Bob built his company around.

Since 1970, Leila has quietly and competently run The Friends of Children (http://thefriendsofchildren.org/), a charity supporting children’s health, education, and welfare. It is the only charity I know that gives away everything it takes in, running on an overhead of less than 1 percent.

“With AmeriCares, I saw how effective the right medical supplies, clean food and water could be in a disaster,” she explains. “But the need didn’t end when the disaster ended. I wanted to be involved in supporting children whose futures were in doubt.”

Leila seeks no compensation for anything she does and has never sought public attention. Concealment is one of the attributes of The Righteous. That’s why you will never see a politician among their number.

The Righteous remind us the world is changed from the bottom up more often than from the top down. They teach us love is always an appropriate response. They transform every life they meet and improve every situation they find. Like Leila Macauley, they make the world a better place simply by being who they are.

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The Season of Thanks and Giving

‘Tis the season to celebrate the power of love.

What is the one indispensable ingredient of life and the most potent force in the universe?

What is God’s greatest gift and the only way God is manifested in the world?

Where can we find at once the solution to the problems in our lives and the problems of the world?

There is only one answer. The answer is Love.

Love is the one thing you cannot get enough of and the one thing you can never give enough of.

We receive love not in proportion to our power, possessions, or position in life, nor in correlation to our needs and desires, but only in proportion to our own capacity to love.

The only way to have love is to give it.

So long as we are loved, we are necessary to the lives of others, indispensable and immortal.

No matter what the problem is the answer will always be found when we surround it with love.

Thus it is that in loving and giving we find the meaning and purpose for our lives.

All we really need is love.

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The Prison of the Self

imagesWhat is the common characteristic of life’s failures?  What do neurotics, psychotics, criminals, perverts, problem children, and other misfits have in common?

All of life’s failures are failures simply because they have not been able to get beyond themselves.  They are self-centered and lack social interest.

Most of the evils of mankind would not be possible if the ego did not persuade us that we were somehow different, somehow better, somehow more precious than others.  It is the ego that draws the line between “us” and “them” and deludes us into thinking we can go it alone.  It is our ego that leads us to believe that we can live untouched by the problems that plague the rest of humanity or that our problems are of a different magnitude, severity, or degree.

At its worst, the ego can persuade us that our smallest desires are more important than someone else’s life, the gratification of our immediate needs more important than another’s well-being, or that our view of the way the world should be is more important than the integrity of nations and the lives of thousands.

Conversely, John Ruskin observed, the first test of a truly great man is humility. “I do not mean by humility doubt of his own powers,” Ruskin said. “But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them.  And they see something Divine in every other man.”

Ego is the enemy.  It keeps us apart. Any activity based on ego and human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle to grace.  Ego separates us from those we love and those who love us. It imprisons us in ourselves.

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