There was a tradition at the Austrian campus where I studied abroad: The last day of semester classes, the entire student body would turn out along the bank of the creek outside the main gates and take the jump. Being in the middle of the Austrian Alps, the water was a cool 50 degrees in mid-May. But after frying our brains on Philosophy, Political Science, History, Theology, and the Arts, and the book that would change my life, we were too excited to care. But we didn’t wait till the end of the semester to sample the Alpine waters!
Now to rewind five months from the end of the semester (from which these pictures come) and we’re in the middle of January when the creek water coursing through the Alps has to be a frigid 20-30 degrees, and any contact with the water immediately causes hyperventilation and a brief brush with death. This seemed like a great idea in mid-January 2012. I was two weeks into my semester abroad, and one evening I was being slapped across the face with my first philosophy class.
It. Was. Brutal.
If you’ve never experienced philosophy, you’re missing out. It is one of the subjects I credit for learning to find value in even the toughest times. But I would not wish the trial-by-fire introduction I had.
My Philosophy professor was the most beautiful Austrian woman I had ever seen. (We’ll call her Professor Heilig.) She stood at a petite 5’6″, wore heeled boots and the most exotic skirts I’d seen. She had curly, Grecian-golden hair, two adorable, cherub sons, a handsome 6’4′ husband, and all the glory of a world-renown, philosophical heritage (her god-father was Dietrich Von Hildebrand).
And. She. Was. Terrifying.
First, we couldn’t miss a day of class or we would lose 1/3 our semester grade. And we had to be on time. She would lock the door the second the clock struck 1:30. Then she had ‘recapitulation’ where she would choose someone at random to restate the major points of the last lecture AND the hefty homework readings due that day, and God Help Us if we didn’t know it, because she would give a pop quiz that was graded if that one person didn’t know the information.
So not only was I enamored by her brains, beauty, and command of the literal stage in the middle of the lecture hall, but I was also petrified that she would choose me. And she did, twice. The first time was the beginning of the semester, the second was at the end when I was 3 minutes late and she hadn’t locked the door yet. I passed both tests.
Now, by the end of the semester, I was aware of the mind-blowing properties of philosophy, but two weeks in, after attempting to read the textbook for 2 hours, I ran to a friend who was majoring in the stuff and begged for help. His response was sure, but a bunch of us are going creek-jumping first.
Creek-Jumping, in the middle of snow covered mountains, in January seemed logical.
But it was because of her that I was introduced to philosophy and the beautiful questions it asks.
The best explanation of Philosophy is that it is better at asking questions, then finding answers. The big ones might range from ‘Is there a God’ to ‘Why am I here’ to ‘Is Murder wrong’? But closer to home might be ‘Will this decision change my character’ or ‘What is the point of being an honest friend’ to ‘What is the purpose of this relationship’.
Depending on the situation, we’ve all asked these questions at some point; and, if you’re reading this blog and pursuing purpose like me, these questions may come to mind more often than not, and we don’t always have the answers ready-made. But then again, many great minds have already perused these questions and sifted out a few answers.
During that Philosophy class, Professor Heilig introduced us to the book that intrinsically altered my life: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It was a small book compared to the textbook we got, that was a great book too, but that’s for another post.
It is the memoir of a Jewish Psychologist that survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, and who made himself and his inmates the subject of the psychological study of meaning in suffering. I had very little understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust, but after reading his perspective it was something altogether unbelievable and new.
Frankl understood what forgiveness and mercy were having lived in a loving Jewish family. But being a psychologist, Frankl’s perspective and attitude towards accepting the seemingly God-forsaken suffering in the camp illustrates a beauty to the resilience of the human spirit.
Frankl writes of his various memories being chosen as a camp doctor, working as a camp prisoner, and analyzing what let some survive, and others give up and die. He came to the conclusion that when one had a reason to live, be it a family member, a religious belief, or a dream to simply survive the atrocities being experienced, one was more likely to make it through each day. He draws sketches of the signs of prisoners giving up, and how they were the ones that did not remember the value of their human existence, however seemingly insignificant in the situation.
As a nineteen-year-old college student, this was eyeopening in the sense of learning that men are capable of stripping everything away from a person: their name, their birthday, their personality, their perceived human value. But in the end, even human value might be overlooked, but it CAN NEVER BE TAKEN AWAY. Frankle know this when he wrote,
“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.”
Now as a teacher, this book had helped me remember how human my students are, even when they’re acting like animals, and that what I say can just as easily strip them of their sense of value as quickly as it can remind them of it. It’s also now the cornerstone text for the AP Language and Comp class I teach to my juniors, and this little book has an 80% approval rate from them. Comming from high school students who can barely keep their eyes from the phone screen, that’s saying a lot!
So if you have a few dollars, and want a quick read that will convince you of your worth without you’re stepping out of your door, do yourself a favor and READ THIS BOOK!
Your sense of purpose and value will be changed and will thank you.
See you out there!