How heroes respond to damning “scientific evidence”

by | October 29, 2012

“Gathering evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences has provided convincing support for the idea that free will is an illusion.”

So says Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D.

Decades earlier, while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl scratched a tedious response on hoarded scraps of paper, which would eventually be pieced together as one of the most important books in the history of the world, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“What about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factorsbe they of a biological, psychological, or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these?

“Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.

“There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in the 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 away 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.”

Another concentration camp survivor, Corrie ten Boom, offered her response soon after World War II. After speaking on love and forgiveness at a church service in Munich, Germany, she was approached by the S.S. officer who had stood guard at the shower room door of her concentration camp.

“How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away.”

As her previous tormentor extended his hand, Corrie was flooded with memories of standing naked before cruel and mocking men, of her sister dying in camp.

“As I took his hand,” she wrote in The Hiding Place, “the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder to my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.”

Jacques Lusseyran, blind leader of the French Resistance to the Nazis, wrote his response in his transcendently beautiful book, And There Was Light, after being imprisoned in Buchenwald for two years:

“This is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has not place in the world of the deported…Be engaged, no matter how, but be engaged…

“Joy I found even in strange byways, in the midst of fear itself. And fear departed from me, as infection leaves an abscess when it bursts.”

Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Louis Zamparelli, Immaculee Ilibagiza, The Van Nguyen, Nick Vujicic and others have also responded with their lives.

These heroes are not the exception. Rather, their actions prove the rule and provide the standard for all humanity.

One person choosing forgiveness over bitterness proves that anyone can forgive. One person choosing meaning and purpose over apathy proves that anyone can.

One hero exercising the power of choice to transcend circumstances leaves the rest of us with no excuse, with an example to emulate, a possibility to strive for.

As George Roche wrote in A World Without Heroes,

“The anti-hero dismisses all purpose as illusion. It sees us as helpless pawns, unable to act or even think on our own, fully shaped and determined by outside forces. It reaches this position with tortuous chains of inference, with misused ‘scientific assumptions’ and fanciful formulas that dare to tell us what we can and cannot know, what is and is not real.

“But this is all contrivance, serving not the search for knowledge and truth, but the rebel’s own dark purposes.

“And it is all belied in an instant by that one purposeful, death-defying act or a hero. That act, a reality known to us all, tells us more about the human condition than all of the empty and life-hating mutterings of modernist philosophers. It serves a Good we all may turn to for fulfillment in our lives.”

Irrefutable evidence from the biographies of mankind’s greatest heroes prove that we have the power to choose. And with that power, we can transcend the most horrific circumstances.

No matter what happens to us, no matter our birth or past, no matter our limitations, we can choose to be happy, loving, productive, heroic, and free.

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