Visiting Auchwitz/Oswienciem was undoubtedly one of the experiences that has had the most impact on my life to date. Recently I found out that one of my great uncles was killed there and my grandmother and great grandmother narrowly escaped Auchwitz by running away and surviving, which heightened things even further. Walking around the perimeter of the property, I could smell freshly-cut grass and hear birdsong and I couldn’t understand how this was possible on the site of such brutality, such loss of humanity, so much unnecessary death and torture. It is such a harrowing reality to face.
Not sure how to process the experience but with the knowledge that I couldn’t walk away unchanged, I spent most of my time there sitting, questioning, breathing, writing and at times silently weeping from the core of my humanity. All as far away from the crowds as possible.
Even though many refer to him as a monster, at the end of the day, Hitler was still a human. We all have the capacity to take extreme action. That is perhaps one of the most sobering realities to stare at in the mirror every day. The next station on this train of thought for me was to differentiate and distinguish between humans – what lies between Hitler and me? I found myself wondering: Perhaps he had a tumour, or a brain defect of sorts… Strange, how we seek reason in the face of the unknown. It is impossible to wrap one’s head around how he did and believed what he did, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened.
Many people go on relentlessly about the meaning of life. Kneeling on the grass at Auchwitz, I came to question the fundamentals of that relentless search and to think that perhaps those efforts are misdirected use of our energy. The Meaning of Life, just like Success, is not a destination to be reached and then that’s it. No no. I see it to be more like an ever-extending set of milestones, an evolving concept, a retrospectively unfolding rhetoric in fact. We will never all discover the same meaning of life nor meaning in life, nor meaning for life. Conviction in one’s perceived/chosen meaning of life can be seen as a convincing strength, but it can also be a destructive, manipulative weapon. Hitler is perhaps one of the most appropriate examples of this in all of history. He was so convinced of his convictions and hell bent on his path of hatred and obliteration of entire groups of global population that any action was justified to himself – he had found what he believed to be his purpose.
At Auchwitz, I looked at this reality and could not fathom how another human being could find meaning in such heinous actions. And then I realised – Hitler put his meaning of life above the value of life, above the value of millions of lives of others. Immediately I saw that perhaps the world is making some fatal errors by doggedly pursuing meaning, at the cost of value. At the cost of life. The cost was and is FAR too great.
Multinationals and governments value power, money and progression in the areas that best benefit them above quality of life of the masses. The impact of this is felt to some degree by every human being, whether directly or indirectly. Their own progression MEANS more to them than they value the lives of those they are in power to protect.
Do we really value and appreciate ourselves and those around us? Do we value and appreciate our lives and the lives of others? Do we have the courage to take the actions that should be the natural flow-on from our answers to those questions? Do we get so hell bent and desperate in our ravenous searches and quests for the answers to unanswerable questions that we de-value life itself?
There are as many meanings of life as there are humans in this world, and then perhaps even many more. Similarly, there are likely to be as many values of life. But I believe a shift towards a value-of-life orientation may help guide decisions in a more humanitarian way. Anyone can make anything their meaning and put that above the value of life – cue the danger of extremist fundamentalism of any kind. I would like to see what would happen, even if at no deeper a level than a philosophical and conceptual inquiry, if people invested more mental capacity in discovering the value of life and acted accordingly. It is quite murky philosophical terrain, with patches of quicksand, areas of quagmires and perhaps some black holes. But as with many conceptual forays, there will also be some mountains with some worthwhile views of perspective.
Since I can speak for no one other than myself, if I right now think about the value of life versus the meaning of life, the former feels lighter, simpler, more basic and fundamental. Whereas, with the latter, a number of question marks playfully emerge and stretch out of my mind. For me, I see more value in cementing for ourselves our value for life and of life, and what that means to us before we chase our own proverbial tails about the meaning of life. Who knows – in finding and valuing the one, we may find the other.
And so, at one of the world’s most recognised death camps, I walked away with an altered and deepened appreciation for and value of life. I was inspired to live, to live well, and to value Life far more than to find meaning.