Why What Happened To Viktor Absolutely Makes You Already A Millionaire

My friend Howard recommended the book to me eight years ago. I made a mental note of it. I’ll read it one day, I told myself. But I knew I’d have to gear myself up for it.

When is a good time to read about Auschwitz?

I remember a few years ago when, as a musician, I performed some songs at an event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. As part of the event, there were photographs on the wall. They showed images of people from inside the concentration camps.

I recall walking along the exhibition, looking at the photographs. They were particularly affecting to me. Most were simple images. People looking straight into the camera.

It was the eyes that tormented me. I expected them to be perhaps pleading. But no. Quite the opposite. Their eyes expected nothing in return. For me, that carried its own horrific subtext. My words can’t convey how troubling these pictures were, even in their simplicity.

Cruelty is the one human trait I am most intolerant of. As a child I witnessed many acts of calculated cruelty. They always made my soul implode. They still do.

Fury can be scary. Violence from that fury even more so. But cruelty is annihilating.

I recall Episode 4 of my podcast. I spoke to primatologist Dr Keith Jensen. He studied the behaviour of other apes, like chimpanzees. He wanted to know what they could tell us about human nature.

In his studies, he noted the importance of empathy in human beings. Empathy is the ability to appreciate what others like and don’t like. Through empathy, we can understand what might be good for another person, and what might be bad.

We can then use that knowledge to care for others better. We can give them what they like and need, and avoid the things that would cause them pain and upset.

Our skills in empathy are what make incredible human kindness possible. Yet, said Keith, empathy has a dark side too. The flip side is that it makes incredible cruelty possible too.

Empathy gives us an awareness of what would make another person suffer. The same empathy that inspires loving kindness, becomes a guide to inflicting deliberate suffering.

It is the fact that suffering is so calculated that makes cruelty so tormenting for me. It sticks to my heart like napalm. How could somebody do that to another person? This is the question that loops unresolved in my mind. Often for days. Sometimes for weeks.

One of the reasons I have a news blackout is to keep out the cruelty. It’s a feature of politics, for instance, that people can behave with great cruelty to others. Then get a platform to congratulate themselves for doing it. And to say that their victims deserved it.

My heart shatters. So now I protect myself from cruelty wherever I can.

You can perhaps appreciate why it took me eight years to finally read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.”

Frankl was a psychiatrist who was an inmate at Auschwitz. The first half of his book is an account of his experiences. I read this half of the book in one sitting. I didn’t finish reading until after 4am.

Frankl recounts his experience in matter of fact terms. I’m not sure if this is his scientific training allowing some distance. Or whether it is just too painful to recount in any other way.

In some ways, that insulates the reader. I noticed I was reading about the conditions in the camp in a matter of fact way too. I was thankful for this, given my disposition.

I would then be shaken from my detachment, and the enormity of it all would hit me afresh.

I thought I knew about the Holocaust. But I didn’t.

I’ve seen some movies that cover concentration camp life. Some of them have been excellent movies. But all have been inadequate in their portrayal.

In the movies, the inmates have too much freedom, are too well fed, are too healthy, are too clean. In the movies it is closer to prison life. Prison life and concentration camp life are a world apart.

At Auschwitz, the inmates had no freedom. Even when there were no SS guards about, Capos monitored them. These were other inmates promoted to positions of authority. They were often more brutal than the guards themselves.

The smallest infractions would result in violence against them. And often there was no reason at all. Indeed, Frankl mentions the frequent blows and kicks almost in passing. Their frequency relegated them to a mere aside in his writing.

Their only meal was 4 ounces of bread per day, and a bowl of thin, watery soup. On this they toiled doing hard manual labour in the bitter cold. Their hunger was like nothing I can imagine. They dealt with it by rationing themselves tiny pieces of bread throughout the day.

They had no medicines. No care. Their shoes didn’t fit and made their feet sore. If they limped, the guards would beat them. Any attempts to make their footwear more comfortable was also punished.

It was forbidden to stop a man from committing suicide. If you saw a man hanging from a beam, camp rules forbade you from cutting him down.

All lived in a state of starvation, without hygiene or warmth. Fifteen people were given two blankets between them. This in the European winter.

I mention this not to depress you. It is a profound read rather than a depressing one.

I put the book down, deep into the early morning. As it was so late I felt a pang of hunger. Nothing too strong, but the kind that most of us would seek to satisfy.

I went to the kitchen to fetch something to eat. Yet I was noticing things I don’t usually notice.

First, as I travelled to the kitchen, I noticed the floor. Strange to notice the floor. But there it was. A solid, clean, wooden floor for me to walk upon. I thought of Auschwitz. For those men, this floor would be heaven.

In the kitchen, I opened a cupboard and chose from among the food available.

How casually I normally do this. How unthinking I am when I open that cupboard and grab, say, a biscuit or a slice of bread.

But what luxury it always was, without me even realising.

I thought of the hunger they faced, so deep that their bodies were feasting on their own muscles. I thought of the tiny portion of bread they would eke out carefully through the day.

And here was I. Grabbing at a biscuit the moment I wanted one. Not just with the ability to have something to eat. But with the freedom to choose what.

There is no real difference between the men I read about, and you or I. Only the strange chance of time,  background, geography and circumstance had them suffer. And that same strange chance has me not even notice my luxury.

I felt flat when I woke up yesterday, two days on from reading the book. My flatness was not a result of the reading. I can often wake with such a feeling.

Yet yesterday, I corrected myself. I thought of them, and realised I have little to feel flat about. I poured myself 120 grammes of muesli. A big, full bowl’s worth. I noticed the sultanas and nuts amongst the seeds.

What would this simple breakfast be to those men I read about? Who am I to permit myself some careless misery as I feast upon such fare?

I felt lucky. No, more than that. Privileged. And grateful for the things I tend to take for granted.

Tony Robbins once said that there is nothing more irritating than a whinging millionaire. They have everything and they still don’t enjoy life.

I laughed when I heard that. How true, I thought. Yet here was I.

For aren’t we millionaires too?

In the eyes of many on our planet, we absolutely are.  In the eyes of those men at Auschwitz too.

And am I not grumbling and finding misery just as those millionaires are? Aren’t you?

Someone said the other week that our breakdown is often another person’s blessing. The thing that we gripe about would be a joy to somebody else.

That traffic jam we are stuck in? Someone housebound dreams of being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to going somewhere.

That annoying habit your partner has? The lonely person would grab that annoyance for the companionship it comes with.

That rainstorm you are caught in without your umbrella? A godsend to someone in the midst of a drought.

Even that eyesore that you hate to look at. A blind man would give anything to see it.

Pretty much everything we grumble about is something that someone, somewhere is craving.

Almost every gripe casts us as the millionaire bemoaning his fortunes.

Viktor Frankl was a scientist and a writer. The Nazis destroyed his unfinished manuscript when he arrived at Auschwitz. His longing to write it again someday is what gave his life meaning in those hellish conditions.

And yet here I am, writing this to you. Just because I feel like. Just because I can.

Just because I live in such privilege that I can express myself into a computer, in  a warm home, with a cup of tea at my side.

And until Viktor Frankl, I didn’t even realise it.

Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice

4 thoughts on “Why What Happened To Viktor Absolutely Makes You Already A Millionaire”

  1. Absolutely spot on Alun. We should all try to remind ourselves of how lucky we are to have shelter, food, clothing, heating, health, most human beings don’t have all of these things. Even if you are ‘poor’ but live in the “affluent West”, you’re still amongst the planet’s privileged compared with billions of others around the globe. Like you, I try to block out cruelty as self- defence, otherwise what I have seen/experienced will haunt me for days afterwards.

  2. Excellent! I too try to have a news blackout and the reduction in stress is palpable. The frustration and helplessness at the inability to change the world around me was driving me crackers. A great approach to life, thank you.

    1. Yep, exactly my experience too. I’ve also taken a break from Facebook with the election being on right now. It’s off my phone and I check it only occasionally. My sleep is better, and I’m less physically reactive too. Plus I get to be the gatekeeper of what comes into my headspace. Lovely.

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