Minute Meditation on the Struggle to Maintain One’s Dignity in the Struggle for Self-Preservation: A Lesson from the Nazi Concentration Camps

That human beings have a natural or instinctive drive to live and survive is virtually undeniable. Animals, in general, also have that instinct. While I grant that a human being is a creature or animal, I also maintain that a human is a different kind of animal, one that is different from other animals in this respect: He or she may choose “how” to respond to a life-threatening situation, maintaining his or her dignity in it. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl calls that distinctively human choice “attitudinal values.”

From his observations of human suffering in the Nazi concentration camps, including his own suffering, Frankl concludes that a human “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”

There is, then, no problem with the biological instinct for self-preservation. But “how” a person expresses that instinctive drive remains, for the most part, under his or her control. Therefore, the struggle for self-preservation challenges a person to “rise up,” to transcend himself or herself, to be more than an animal, by acting as a dignified human being.

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