Saturday, October 19, 2013

NS Man's Search for Meaning (5 Ways Conscription is like a Concentration Camp)

Man's Search for Meaning is a literary classic by Viktor E. Frankl who uses his holocaust experience as a canvas to illustrate his observations about human nature in suffering.

Many friends had recommended it to me, and I am glad I finally got down to reading it. I highly recommend it to everyone, because suffering is a part of daily life. We all feel trapped at times - whether it be at work, at school, by rebellious kids or ailing parents, or even a permanent disability - and Frankl's writing gives us a perspective on how we should face our sufferings.

I'm sure there are hundreds of reviews of this book out there, but I liked it so much I wanted to write something. So I will apply it to the closest experience that most Singaporean males will face -  2 years of forced labour in National Service. There has never been a time I felt so trapped in fear as I did during my days in OCS - that's probably the closest to a concentration camp I ever got.

1. The Last of Human Freedoms: Attitude

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.  
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate. (p75)
They can shave your hair and take away your identity, but you alone retain the choice of how you want to face an ordeal like a concentration camp or conscription. You alone can choose whether you want to run from every kind of hardship, even at the expense of your companions, or if you face your fate with pride and dignity. And in the process, you will determine whether you win the respect or condemnation of the people around you.

2. Paying it Back in Suffering

During this psychological phase one observed that people with natures of a more primitive kind could not escape the influences of the brutality which had surrounded them in camp life. Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly. The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences. (p97)
I've always been curious why NSF, who have gone through some difficult phase of training and are then placed in charge of the next batch, seem to derive sadistic pleasure out of inflicting the same torment on those after them. Are practices like initiations really necessary? I guess this explains it.

3. Decent and Indecent Men Are Everywhere

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the "race" of the decent man and the "race" of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of "pure race"—and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards. (p94)
A valuable reminder not to stereotype any group of people, and also an explanation why you hear so many differing accounts of the NS experience. Some people are probably luckier to have met more decent folks than others. And whatever your situation, which of these two types of people do you want to be?

4. Finding Meaning in Life

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." (p110) 
This is really the central theme of Frankl's book. The best way to survive an experience like NS and be better for it is to understand the meaning and to know the sacrifice has a purpose. This begs the question what is the meaning of NS? Perhaps the need for NS and the dangers that the country faces needs to be explained more clearly. Perhaps the commanders in every unit need to make the experience more meaningful.
Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph. (p147)
But Frankl lists three ways to find meaning, and none of them is that the government or other people should give you meaning. True to the spirit of his book, he examines how each person can choose his own attitude, and find meaning even in a hopeless situation, to make himself a better person. He also writes:
... empirical evidence is also available which supports the possibility that one may find meaning in suffering. Researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine "have been impressed by the number of prisoners of war of the Vietnam war who explicitly claimed that although their captivity was extraordinarily stressful—filled with torture, disease, malnutrition, and solitary confinement—they nevertheless . . . benefited from the captivity experience, seeing it as a growth experience."

5. Unavoidable Suffering 

But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering—provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological,
biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic. (p119)
The NS experience is an opportunity for great personal growth precisely because it is unavoidable. Since we are forced to enlist, we can make a heroic effort to serve with dignity for those two years. But we all know that given the choice, very few would enlist, and the heroes become zeroes in the eyes of their friends if they choose the experience willingly.


These are some of the key lessons I have learned from the book, which I have applied in the NS context. But it really has applications for every difficult situation. I really recommend everyone to read this book, and I note that there is a free PDF available here. This is also the version that I have matched my page number references to.