“Art is God’s way of saying hello,” wrote Neale Donald Walsch. God said hello to me every day for two weeks during my recent tour of towns and cities along the Danube River in Europe. Expert guides led us through ancient castles, magnificent palaces and stupendous cathedrals,.
As we traveled, my awe at the Gothic cathedrals, baroque concert halls and ethereal art would often give way to contemplation and depression upon hearing of the local history’s constant wars, and the brutal lives of the peasants and slaves who built these monuments.
I learned about King Ludvig II, who ascended the Bavarian throne at 18, a shy, isolated boy whose interests lay in nature, poetry, fantasy, and architecture. He withdrew from politics and spent his time and money creating palaces and castles. Best-known among these may be Neuschwanstein (“New Swan-on-the-Rock Castle”) a dramatic Romanesque fortress with soaring fairy-tale towers. It’s been said that Neuschwanstein was the inspiration for Disneyland.
When Ludvig’s ministers grew tired of his spending and his lack of interest in governing, they concocted a plan to have him declared insane. Four psychiatrists who had never examined him declared him “incapable of ruling” and he was taken from his castle and kept captive at Castle Berg on Lake Starnberg. He was found dead shortly after, declared drowned in waist-high water, even though he was known to be a strong swimmer. He then became known as “The Mad King.”
Such schemes and machinations of power – still alive and well today – invite us to consider how we view historical figures and history itself. Do we choose judgment and despair at mankind, and thus feel victimized by the greed and the violence inherent in world history?
I was tempted to hold this view after I visited Thereinstadt, the first concentration camp that psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl lived in before he was sent to other labor and death camps. Needless to say, witnessing the place where 33,000 people died of disease and starvation, and seeing the furnaces and the graves, was a deeply sad and humbling experience.
I had to remind myself of how Frankl himself chose to respond to the loss of his family, his own near-death in the camps and the devastation the Nazis wrought on his beloved Austria. He refused to embrace the concept of “collective guilt” of the German people, but instead insisted upon individual responsibility, which he applied both to the Nazis’ crimes, and the survivors’ personal responsibility to endure and overcome suffering in order to live and love. “Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire,” he wrote.
Frankl chose compassion and acceptance, and committed himself to service as a physician, as well as writing and lecturing on existential, humanistic psychology. One of his 39 books, Man’s Search for Meaning, continues to be a bestseller after nearly 70 years. He was passionate about his message: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
After my recent trip, I chose to remember the magnificence and the timelessness of the cathedrals, the opulence of the palaces, and the otherworldly beauty of the castles I visited, as I feel they represent the legacy and the gift from all of the populations who lived before me. Frankl loved mountain-climbing, and he delighted in every tree, bird and flower he saw. The subtitle to one of his early book titles was: “Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything!” In my case, I could amend this to: “Say Yes to Life Because of Everything!” How privileged I am to be able to see so much beauty in life. How much beauty can you see in yours?