In his best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes how the smoking of cigarettes came to denote a loss of hope in concentration camp prisoners.
Given the lack of even the most basic necessities in World War 2 camps like Auschwitz which Frankl endured, cigarettes were a luxury reserved for the SS captors and the “capos” – SS appointed prisoners who headed up labour squads.
Being this scarce, cigarettes became part of camp currency and prisoners could be rewarded with a few sticks for performing especially taxing or unsavory tasks. But the prisoners didn’t smoke the cigarettes; they would use them to buy soup or a mouthful of bread to sustain their lives. Cigarettes of themselves had no use beyond a means by which to barter for life-giving items. So, when one witnessed a fellow prisoner smoking, it was an ominous sign. You knew that all hope had been lost and it was only a matter of time.
You see hope is not a nice-to-have. It is essential to our well-being and even survival. We simply must have something to believe in; a purpose or faith in the broadest sense. Some call it a “why” we live. Frankl quotes Nietzsche who said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.
I think we can all understand why a prisoner in a World War 2 concentration camp would lose hope and smoke their cigarettes. But what about us? How quickly and easily do we lose hope? The answer to this question recently came at me in the form of a good many responses to a column I wrote about the great hope that can be found in South Africa right now. Many people just didn’t want to hear it. One person’s words were particularly startling: “If you are still hopeful about this country then I feel sorry for you.”
Now let’s be blunt here; we are not comparing our loss of hope to hope that finally slips from our grasp like the smoke rising from the gas ovens that we have witnessed for months and even years. This is quite simply the hope that is given up because we – and I include myself in this – don’t get our way. As soon as things get too hot in the kitchen (i.e. we are downgraded to junk status, our political party doesn’t win, our political party doesn’t look like it used to, we get the wrong Councillore, our President doesn’t get arrested on our timeframe, we discover that corruption goes beyond us paying cops the odd bribe, our roads get potholes, our currency devalues, our pension is eroded etc.), we threaten to leave; we refuse to vote; we engage in anarchic and disruptive violence like the flinging of poo; we kill one another; we turn on our country and her people by engaging in negativity and racism. In Frankl’s terms, we sit down, light our cigarette and declare that all hope is lost. Really?
Where is our resilience, our much-praised South African spirit and work ethic? Where is our willingness to fight for what we believe in as so many before us have done? How can we expect anything to change if we are not willing to do the changing? If we don’t change it, guess who gladly will: the corrupt and the criminal – to suit their greedy needs.
How do we even begin doing this when all around us is doom and gloom? According to Frankl the only freedom that camp prisoners had left was the freedom to choose the attitude that they had to any given situation. And of course, this is ultimately true for all of us: what attitude will I adopt in this situation – in South Africa nearing the end of 2017? Will I choose to give up hope, or to grab every hope I can and make the absolute most of life in this incredible country? And having adopted a positive attitude, what actions can I take to better the situation for me and mine and for us all? Positive actions – however small – are catalysts for hope to grow. And as hope grows so our desire to do more hopeful stuff follows.
For all humanity the learning is clear: if people like Frankl and millions of others could find hope in the worst possible conditions, then we can all do it.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.