Sense of Purpose saves lives

by Didier Marlier on Saturday November 19th, 2011

In my office, well in sight, are the remains of a bed’s part coming from a concentration camp with a profile of the Virgin Mary engraved. This is all that the nazis returned to my grandfather, about his best friend, a catholic priest, caught by the Gestapo for hiding Jewish children. Father de Soil had no family left and he died. Later, my grandfather was arrested as it was discovered that he was the leader in that ring of judges, priests and nuns who were hiding the children. He was caught late in the war and lucky to survive. He had asked his friends in the Resistance to hide his beloved ones, should he fall. This is how my family discovered Switzerland.   And this is where my strong sense of rebelliousness comes from when faced with injustice.

Recently, my daughter came home with a text of Romain Gary, extracted from a famous novel of his, The Roots of Heaven  relating survival in concentration camps (thanks to Nick McRoberts for the translation):

One day, for example, Robert had entered the block mimicking the attitude of a man giving his arm to a woman. We had collapsed, dirty, disgusted, desperate … Those who were not too exhausted whined, complained and cursed aloud. Robert moved through the room, continuing to offer his arm to the imaginary woman before our stunned eyes, then he made ​​the gesture to invite her to sit on his bed. There was, despite the general apathy, some expressions of interest. The guys rose up on one elbow and looked with amazement at Robert courting his invisible wife. Sometimes he touched her chin, sometimes he kissed her hand, sometimes he whispered something in her ear and bowed from time to time in front of her with the courtesy of a bear, when suddenly, seeing that Janin was scratching himself, he approached and threw him a blanket… 

“What?” Janin squeaked, “What are you doing? I no longer have the right to scratch?”
“Behave, Robert yelled, “There is a lady with us!” 
“Huh? What?”
“Are you crazy?”
“What lady?”
“Of course!” grinned Robert, “I am hardly surprised… There are still a few amongst you, who pretend not to see her. Am I right? And this entitles them to remain vulgar and dirty amongst themselves…”
No one said anything. Maybe he had gone crazy but he still had terrifying fists that kept even the most dangerous prisoners quiet. He walked back to his imaginary lady and kissed her hand softly. Then he turned towards the rest of us who were watching him, speechless: “OK, let me warn you: from this moment on, things will change here. First, you will stop whinging. You will try to behave in front of “her” as if you were real men. I said AS IF! That is the only thing that matters. You will start making a serious effort of cleanliness and dignity otherwise, I’ll punch! She wouldn’t stand an extra day in such a stinking atmosphere and… We are French, so we have to remain gallant and polite… And I’ll personally deal with the first one of you who lacks respect towards her…”
We stared at him in silence. Little by little, some of us started to understand. There were a few rare laughs but we felt confusedly that, at the level we had fallen to, if there wasn’t a code of dignity to support us, if we didn’t hang on to a fiction, a myth, then we would rapidly let ourselves go, become submissive or even worse, collaborate. From that very moment, something extraordinary happened: the morale in Block K actually rose several notches.”

Few people better personify the notion of “Sense of Purpose and Meaning” than the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was from Jewish origin. When the persecutions started under Nazi influence, he chose to stay in Austria to support his patients. He ended up being arrested in 1942 and deported to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt with his wife, Tilly Grosser and both his parents. As a psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl was interested in what was pushing some people to want to live or survive at any cost, and what was driving those who had suicidal tendencies.

Shortly before they were arrested by the Nazis, Tilly hid the manuscript of her husband’s writing on the sense of Purpose in the lining of his jacket. The first day they had arrived at the camp, after being separated, the manuscript was discovered and the work of a whole life sadistically destroyed by a “guard” in front of Viktor’s eyes… His parents, then his wife died in different concentration camps, Viktor himself “migrated” through Auschwitz and Türkheim prior to finally being freed.

As soon as liberated, he wrote a book in reflection of his concentration camp’s experience called: “Man’s search for Meaning. Frankl explains how his theory (finding a meaning in everything of life) helped him survive the Holocaust. His manuscript had been destroyed as soon as arriving in the Camp? He would use his stay there as an opportunity to check his theory versus reality… Amongst the stories Frankl brought back from this journey to Horror, was the fact that inmates would always be able to predict when one of them was going to die: that person would suddenly declare having no further reason to continue fighting for their life… and soon after they were gone.

For Nokians before the disaster, “Connecting People” used to be a transcending Purpose. In DCNS, a state owned industrial group building ships for several armies around the world, each employee feels personally responsible for the lives of the sailors who will board their ships or submarines. Every banker at Julius Baer, feels responsible for the wealth their clients entrust them with and take it as a personal fault if their client is disappointed… Being able to create such a strong Sense of Purpose is fundamental, to us leaders when we want to get the best out of our people.

Have a great week all, mine will be in São-Paulo…




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One Response to “Sense of Purpose saves lives”

  1. Another excellent, thought-provoking post. Thank you for the introduction to Romain Gary (I have ordered the book).

    Let me suggest another book relating to experience as a prisoner of war: “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot” by Jim Stockdale. The author was the most senior American pilot captured during the war in Vietnam, spending 7 years enduring frequent torture in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton”. I have found this book useful because of the absolute clarity of thought: with the right attitude (which he derived from his study of the Stoic philosophers and especially Epictetus), one can survive the most appalling situations with all one’s mental faculties and one’s honor intact.

    The key is to understand very clearly what you can control (your opinion, aims, aversions, grief, joy, attitude, your own good and your own evil), and what you can’t. Nothing else is within your control (including reputation, health, wealth, pleasure, pain, life, death…, in short, whatever other people can do to you).

    Once this is clear it becomes much easier to find one’s Sense of Purpose.


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