Saturday, 23 January 2016

Survive your Camp

‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, 19th century

It is now a year and half since I launched Survive Your Camp. The time has been a continuation of previous life with some victories and many difficulties. I did not have the time to promote Survive Your Camp as much as it deserves to be promoted. Recently a friend told me that she had given copies to a friend and her brother and they really appreciated the advice in the book. More people could benefit if they have the opportunity to read it.

So I am relaunching Survive your Camp. I will speak to any group and any radio station to promote Survive your Camp. Send an email with contact details and I will contact you to arrange my talk. Following is the story of the book.

I read many books to learn lessons to help me better deal with difficult life situations. I came across a reference to Viktor Frankl. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, survived for three years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He applied what he learned from his camp experiences to logotherapy, the theory of psychotherapy that he developed.

One can survive a difficult situation by having a meaning in life, a great love, or a noble, stoical acceptance of one’s suffering.

I read many of Frankl’s books, especially Man’s Search for Meaning, the book that describes his experience. I used his experience as a guide for dealing with my difficulties. I surmised that skills learned and used to help someone survive the greatest, most evil calamity that man has committed against man must be powerful skills.

So I started to write this book and read about other concentration camp experiences. I extracted lessons that can be applied to our own lesser difficulties in life. Our difficulties do not approach the horror of the Nazi death camps.

Nothing else that man has ever done to his fellow man approaches the organized, systematic horror of the Nazi death camps. Only one inmate in 28 sent to these camps survived. Their main purpose was racial extermination.

The Nazis established several camps for the sole purpose of extermination – most notably Treblinka, Sobibor, Chełmno and Bełżec. There were very few survivors of these camps, which is why they are less well known than the bigger workcamps.

Only two Jewish prisoners survived Bełżec, in which around 500,000 died. Only three survived Chełmno. There were revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor and some escapees survived to tell their tale. Extermination was carried out on a similar scale at the multi-purpose camps of Auschwitz and Majanek.

The Soviet Gulags, to which I also refer, were bad but not in the same league. Many were imprisoned for surprisingly minor reasons such as escaping from a German POW camp or referring to Stalin as ‘Old Man Whiskers’ in private communication to a friend.

30% of those imprisoned in gulags perished. This was an inevitable result of carelessness and indifference. Inmates died because they were underfed and overworked in Siberian winters. There was not a policy of deliberate extermination as there was in Nazi camps.

Auschwitz, in Poland, earned its notoriety because more people died there than in any other camp – over one million. It was the main destination for Jews transported from occupied countries as part of the Final Solution in the latter years of the war. By then the Germans were losing the war and most other extermination camps had been closed.

Upon arrival there was the first selection. Children, old people and those judged unfit to work went straight to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

During those latter years of the war, healthy adults were sent to workcamps to help the failing war effort. Frankl was transported to a subcamp of Dachau near Munich. Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, other authors I refer to below, were both sent to Auschwitz-Monowitz. This workcamp, also known as Auschwitz III or Buna, provided labor for building of a synthetic rubber factory.

Wiesel also survived the notorious death march and transportation ahead of the Russian advance to Buchenwald in Germany. His father died shortly after arriving in Buchenwald.

Some uneasy facts that I came across in my research present surviving a concentration camp in a darker light than that presented by Frankl. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who survived for a year in Auschwitz, wrote extensively on his experience in If This Is a Man.

In his follow-up book The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986, Levi makes the point that the privileged prisoners were a minority in the camps but represent a majority of the survivors.

Privileged prisoners, or Prominenten in German, helped run the camps. They included specialist workers such as doctors, and cooks, and supervisors to help run the camp — camp wardens and foremen, known as Kapos. They received better treatment than the ordinary prisoners.

Many of the survivors felt guilty about surviving when so many ‘better’ people died. They might have done something that they felt was not the right thing in order to survive a bit longer.

This is another reason that the death camps were so evil. Not only did they kill so many people, but they also scarred many survivors with feelings of guilt. The Nazis wanted those imprisoned, especially the Jews, to be degraded.

I now realize that doing whatever it takes to survive is a key message of this book. To survive you need not just a noble attitude, your life work or someone to love, and resilience. You may also need to make compromises. You may have to do things that you would not do in better circumstances.

This book contains lessons to help you survive a difficult situation until a better day. When that day comes you can fully enjoy life again. Do not feel guilty about doing what it takes to survive your difficult situation.

Now available in print and ebook from Amazon.co.uk, amazon.com (print and ebook) and amazon Europe. Follow links to read more excerpts.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Strive to help others

Earlier this week I felt my life had no purpose. I had managed several crises for the past few years and the situations are now under control. I thought again of the 3 reasons to live given by Viktor Frankl that I wrote about in ‘Survive your camp’. You can survive a difficult situation by having a meaning in life, a great love, or acceptance of your suffering.
Because the crises had passed, I was no longer suffering.
I recently studied stoical philosophy to help me cope and understand life. This resulted in me focusing more on my place in the universe, on acceptance of fate and on how little influence I have outside my own mind. While this acceptance significantly lessened pain I might feel, I could no longer love anyone or aspire to love anyone with great intensity.
So that just left life’s meaning – the great work that I would do. I do a lot of work at my job, my writing, my horticulture and looking after my house. But right now none of it seems to be the main meaning in my life.
I even wished for another crisis so I would have something on which to focus. So my suffering would again become the driving factor. But I quickly discarded this idea. Why would anyone wish for pain? I should be thankful that I was no longer suffering. I have great talents and multiple opportunities, even if none of them really felt strong enough to be a meaning of life.
Then I asked what I could do that would make my life feel fulfilled and ultimately reward me. What do the people we most admire do?  They dedicate their lives to helping others or doing things that bring happiness to others. We all know many people who dedicate their lives to helping or entertaining others. Yesterday on the radio I heard a British nurse who survived Ebola say he was going back to West Africa again to help others. Many people are similarly giving.
Then it struck me. Most of what I do is to help others. In my work I develop useful products to make people’s lives better and help my colleagues to do their jobs. I do my job to earn money to help my family. I help with social clubs for the benefit of others. Even the work I do in my garden will ultimately help others by producing fruit, jams and wines. I will be rewarded for helping others, both in personal satisfaction and perhaps financially. By writing this column today I am helping you the reader.
Perhaps you are happy living a life with another focus. Perhaps you have a job, or hobbies and pastimes that you find so engrossing and satisfying that you are happy and fulfilled in yourself. In this case you should continue with the life that you have. You may if you examine your life realise that you are bringing happiness to others just by doing what you do.
But if your life feels empty, focus on the help you give to others. Think how others benefit from what you do. Spend more of your time doing things for other people. A more selfless focus to your life will make you feel so much better about yourself. It will give your life meaning.
Strive to help others and to make their lives better. The life most benefitted by the help you give will be your own.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

What is it that it is in your nature to do?

Get up every morning as early as you can and do what it is your nature to do. Marcus Aurelius
We can overthink things. After completing the recent blog post about getting up and doing what it is in your nature to do I spent hours thinking about what that was. Was there a big task I should accomplish? Books? Politics? Public speaking? Inventions? Fruit growing? Was some big thing the task that was in my nature to do?
     Nothing earth shattering came to mind. I suspect that is the same for most people. So I thought about what I do each day. I get up and write. I may make bread first thing. I get kids ready for school and to their bus. I go to work. After work I may jog, cook, watch TV, read, attend meetings, clean up my shed, mow the lawn. I do what it is in my nature to do each day and it changes somewhat from day to day depending on what needs doing. And this is right. I am fortunate that I always have something to do. The task that I should do is always apparent. I am lucky.
     Knowing what it is you have to do and doing it is not difficult so long as you do not try to overthink it as I did recently. If there is a big task to which you should devote most of your time that will be apparent. Otherwise it will just be a series of smaller tasks – tasks related to your job, to looking after your family, looking after your home, meeting friends or just relaxing. If what you are doing does not feel right, do something that does feel right.

     Only you can answer the question in your own mind about what the next most important task is for you to do. Sometimes it will be to relax. We all need downtime. And if you spend too much time relaxing then something else will become the most important task for you to do. So long as you let your nature decide what it is you should do, you will be happy with your life.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Do what is in your nature

"Get up every morning as early as you can and do what it is your nature to do." Marcus Aurelius
     My recent contemplation of stoicism has led inevitably to a consideration of nihilism. Stoicism tells us that anything over which we do not have complete control is irrelevant – that is everything apart from our own virtues and vices. So anything done by other people is irrelevant. That is nearly everything that most people are concerned about. While following a stoical lifestyle increases your serenity and decreases stress, you inevitably wonder if it leaves enough in life to keep it interesting.
     Nihilism is a short step beyond that. You wonder if anything is relevant at all. Our own virtues and vices are only of interest to us and so what do they matter in the great scheme of things? Is anything you do of any relevance? After you go all that you are and have done will return to dust. Shortly after that your kids and grandkids will return to dust and with them your memory. Therefore you wonder if anything is worth worrying about at all.
     The Galaxy Song from the end of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life comes to mind.
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
 As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.
     So what is the meaning of your life or anyone else’s? It has been said that I think too much and I feel I may well be overthinking this point. Many people commit suicide. Maybe some of them overthink life and come to the same conclusion.
     What do less intelligent creature than humans do? Cows graze, chew the cud, rest on the grass and walk slowly to the milking parlour. Your dog will at times run around life a mad lunatic maybe chasing rabbits. He will scrounge for food and at times lie resting in the sun. Creatures do what it is in their nature to do. This is a good guidance to what you should do.
     I thought of all the great things done by so many people in the past. Much of this work has served to make the world a much more liveable place. There are great works of engineering, of art, of literature, of business. These works make the world better. In some cases the creators are remembered well. In others their memory is their work. If all these people had not done what they did the world would be a lesser place.
     The key to life comes back again to the words of the philosopher king, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – Get up every morning as early as you can and do what it is your nature to do. This could be anything, but by doing whatever is in your nature it will make you happier and more content with life and ultimately will make the world a better place.
     But the question that many people need an answer is what is it in your nature to do? Ask yourself what feels right? When I wake up this morning what do I feel I should be doing? You probably already do it for at least some time. One tip I read recently from a blog writer called Robert D is that you always know what you should do next. Ask yourself hypothetically what you should do next if you didn’t know what to do. Think about it for 15 seconds. You will answer the question and you should do that next. The 2 most important questions are 1. What is important right now? 2. What is important immediately after that?
     Again do not overthink it. This task is what is in your nature to do next.
     You might need to think a bit deeper if you need a better direction in life. But again you need to ask yourself what is in your nature to do. Ignore for a minute all those drudging tasks you feel you have to do. What gives you a buzz? What are you good at? Think for minute …
     Thought of it? … Think on… Whatever it is feels right. Now there are other things you have to do. Think about ways of not spending so much time doing these tasks so you have more time to do what is in your nature. If you are fortunate it will be something that other people will pay you to do. I read recently in another blog by Mike Figliuolo’s that to plan your career you should identify the tasks on the Venn diagram intersection of the sets ‘the things you enjoy’, ‘the things you are good at’, ‘the things people will pay you to do’. Anything in this intersection should make a good career. There is a good possibility that you will be able to make a good living if your can do something well and with great enthusiasm.
     But if you are having difficulty identifying something in the sweet spot, do not despair. There may be nothing that people are willing to pay you for that falls into the other 2 categories. But some people have achieved great things without means. We all know of penniless artists and authors who were only discovered after their deaths. But they could not have made their great works if it were not in their nature.
     For your own happiness you need to do what is in your nature – things you enjoy and are good at. You need to have faith that you will survive. Our basic needs are quite meagre if you are willing to give up luxuries. You may be fortunate enough to live in a country with a welfare blanket. You may be supported by your spouse or family. You should go for it. Do not feel guilty. You are doing what is in your nature. It may be in the nature of these others to support you doing it. If you are producing good work, I suspect these others enjoy supporting you.
     So now ignore all the responsibilities you feel are holding you back. Ask yourself again ‘what is it that it is my nature to do?’. Identify it. Once you decide to do it, you will think of ways to hand the responsibilities to someone else. If you want do something you will find a way. If you don’t want to do something you will find an excuse.

     A quote by Hugh Hefner ‘Life is too short to be living someone else’s dream’.

Friday, 5 September 2014

It’s hard to p!$$ you off if your don’t give a S&!+

I remember well something said to me years ago by a laid-back friend – ‘It is hard to piss off a man who doesn’t give a shit’. I made the point in Survive your Camp that when you are in a difficult life situation you have to let stuff go. Use apathy as a defense.
     But this has application to your life in general. The Buddha said that all unhappiness is caused by attachment. This could be attachment to possessions, to your job or avocations, or to people. Life is easier if you are not so attached.
     Many people become quite disheartened when their comfortable life changes for the worse. They suffer bereavement, divorce or a loss of a job. You should be thankful for the good things you have, but realize that they are not permanent either. This realization will make their inevitable loss to you less painful.
     This is an underlying ethos of stoicism. Stoics classify everything as either good, bad or indifferent. The only things that are good are virtues. You should work on improving these. The four cardinal virtues, from ancient Greek philosophy are prudence, justice, temperance (or restraint) and courage (or fortitude). The seven heavenly virtues of Christianity are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
     The only bad things are vices. The vices that mirror the virtues in Greek Philosophy are rashness, injustice, intemperance and cowardice. A fuller list of vices is the seven deadly sins of medieval Christianity - wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. The seven virtues above are opposites of these. You should work at eliminating them.
     Everything else is indifferent. Everything external to you, i.e. outside your total control, should be indifferent to how you feel. There are preferred indifferents, rejected indifferents and genuinely indifferent indifferents. It is important to neither be excessively pleased about the preferred or upset about the rejected indifferent events. If they are outside your control you have no reason to feel excessively pleased or displeased about them.
     Obviously it is preferred to have a job, wealth, friends and a family. You would rather not have illness, poverty or enemies. But it is important to neither be too attached to the former nor too upset about the latter. Anything outside your control should not affect how you feel about yourself.
     If you can maintain a stoical acceptance of the good and bad things that happen in your life you will have much more control over your happiness. If something is upsetting you ask yourself is it a result of your vice? If not don’t let it bother you. If you are overjoyed at an event ask yourself is it due to your own virtue? If not you should restrain your joy. Something that is the result of an action by another can easily be taken away.
     You will have a much happier life if you learn to not give a shit about good things or bad things. Chill! Be cool like Zeno.


(Illustration of Zeno from http://poignantboy.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/stoicism/)

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Survive your camp. New book about concentration camp survival skills now available

‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, 19th century

I read many books to learn lessons to help me better deal with difficult life situations. I came across a reference to Viktor Frankl. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, survived for three years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He applied what he learned from his camp experiences to logotherapy, the theory of psychotherapy that he developed.
     One can survive a difficult situation by having a meaning in life, a great love, or a noble, stoical acceptance of one’s suffering.
     I read many of Frankl’s books, especially Man’s Search for Meaning, the book that describes his experience. I used his experience as a guide for dealing with my difficulties. I surmised that skills learned and used to help someone survive the greatest, most evil calamity that man has committed against man must be powerful skills.
     So I started to write this book and read about other concentration camp experiences. I extracted lessons that can be applied to our own lesser difficulties in life. Our difficulties do not approach the horror of the Nazi death camps.
    Nothing else that man has ever done to his fellow man approaches the organized, systematic horror of the Nazi death camps. Only one inmate in 28 sent to these camps survived. Their main purpose was racial extermination.
     The Nazis established several camps for the sole purpose of extermination – most notably Treblinka, Sobibor, Chełmno and Bełżec. There were very few survivors of these camps, which is why they are less well known than the bigger workcamps.
     Only two Jewish prisoners survived Bełżec, in which around 500,000 died. Only three survived Chełmno. There were revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor and some escapees survived to tell their tale. Extermination was carried out on a similar scale at the multi-purpose camps of Auschwitz and Majanek.
     The Soviet Gulags, to which I also refer, were bad but not in the same league. Many were imprisoned for surprisingly minor reasons such as escaping from a German POW camp or referring to Stalin as ‘Old Man Whiskers’ in private communication to a friend.
     30% of those imprisoned in gulags perished. This was an inevitable result of carelessness and indifference. Inmates died because they were underfed and overworked in Siberian winters. There was not a policy of deliberate extermination as there was in Nazi camps.
     Auschwitz, in Poland, earned its notoriety because more people died there than in any other camp – over one million. It was the main destination for Jews transported from occupied countries as part of the Final Solution in the latter years of the war. By then the Germans were losing the war and most other extermination camps had been closed.
     Upon arrival there was the first selection. Children, old people and those judged unfit to work went straight to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
     During those latter years of the war, healthy adults were sent to workcamps to help the failing war effort. Frankl was transported to a subcamp of Dachau near Munich. Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, other authors I refer to below, were both sent to Auschwitz-Monowitz. This workcamp, also known as Auschwitz III or Buna, provided labor for building of a synthetic rubber factory.
     Wiesel also survived the notorious death march and transportation ahead of the Russian advance to Buchenwald in Germany. His father died shortly after arriving in Buchenwald.
     Some uneasy facts that I came across in my research present surviving a concentration camp in a darker light than that presented by Frankl. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who survived for a year in Auschwitz, wrote extensively on his experience in If This Is a Man.
     In his follow-up book The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986, Levi makes the point that the privileged prisoners were a minority in the camps but represent a majority of the survivors.
     Privileged prisoners, or Prominenten in German, helped run the camps. They included specialist workers such as doctors, and cooks, and supervisors to help run the camp — camp wardens and foremen, known as Kapos. They received better treatment than the ordinary prisoners.
     Many of the survivors felt guilty about surviving when so many ‘better’ people died. They might have done something that they felt was not the right thing in order to survive a bit longer.
     This is another reason that the death camps were so evil. Not only did they kill so many people, but they also scarred many survivors with feelings of guilt. The Nazis wanted those imprisoned, especially the Jews, to be degraded.
     I now realize that doing whatever it takes to survive is a key message of this book. To survive you need not just a noble attitude, your life work or someone to love, and resilience. You may also need to make compromises. You may have to do things that you would not do in better circumstances.
     This book contains lessons to help you survive a difficult situation until a better day. When that day comes you can fully enjoy life again. Do not feel guilty about doing what it takes to survive your difficult situation.

     Now available in print and ebook from Amazon.co.uk, amazon.com (print and ebook) and amazon Europe. Follow links to read more excerpts.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A ‘random’ breath test revealed Laplace’s demon

One morning recently I was stopped for a random alcohol breath test on the way home. While I was blowing into the breathalyzer a van pulling a trailer that I had finally had the opportunity to overtake a minute or so earlier was waved past. I was soon on my way again after registering zero and within minutes was driving behind the van and trailer again.
     The incident inspired me to think about fate and random events. If I had not had the opportunity to overtake the van a minute earlier its driver would have been subjected to the ‘random’ breath test. I would have been waved past and on my way.
     But none of this was random. Everything that happened on my journey home was the direct result of actions taken by me and others. And these actions were caused by previous actions going all the way back to the big bang. Nothing that happens is truly random. Everything is the inevitable result of previous actions.
     I left for home at a certain time. I missed a turn and went a slightly longer route. I came to be driving behind a van that left his departure point at a time determined by whatever was going on in the driver’s life. The checkpoint was set up for that place and time in advance. If you had total knowledge you could have predicted the events exactly as they occurred.
     But no one knows everything. That is why we have the concepts of ‘randomness’ and ‘probability’ to try and estimate unknowns. For instance there was nothing random about the checkpoint being where it was that morning or me being on that road or the other driver being on that road. An all knowing being would have known all that and would have predicted me being stopped and breathalyzed.
     Everything that happens is the direct result of events that have happened before.
     The event that morning was of little consequence. I had not been drinking so just drove on delayed by a few minutes. The van turned onto a different road shortly afterwards so I did not even have to overtake it again.
     But I did gain a deeper insight into the stoical concept that the course of events is set and cannot be changed. Now that you are aware of this inevitability, paradoxically, it allows you more control over adverse events and perhaps to ameliorate any bad effect on you.
     And your new awareness of the need to examine likely scenarios is an inevitable consequence of actions taken by you and others. This was entirely predictable to someone with the knowledge that you would read this and other similar material.
     You ask if you can ever have total knowledge of everything going on?  And if not how is this insight of use? You do know part of it – you know what is going on in your own mind and near you. Instead of living within your body take ‘a view from above’. Imagine you are not in your own body but looking down on yourself from the ceiling. See your actions and how you interact with others. Observe yourself as you would observe others. How do you appear to third parties? Are you popular? Do they think you are clever?
     Look at others from a similar vantage. What are they thinking? What are they doing? Now as a result of what you can see, predict the next few events in your life. The things you do yourself should be entirely predictable if you have planned your day. You will probably notice that the actions of others as they relate to you are also somewhat predictable.
     Obviously, you cannot know as much as an all seeing observer. Actions of some people you do not know may influence events. You did not expect the telephone survey to occupy 15 minutes of your time delaying your day. But if you had total knowledge of that person’s calling schedule the call to you was entirely predictable. But how often does this kind of outside interference affect our lives?
     This prediction of future events is known as predestination or determinism and is a well-known concept in religion and philosophy. Predestination is a core belief of Calvinism. Depending on the will of God some are chosen and some are damned and their actions follow.
     Determinism is independent of the influence of God or existence or not of an afterlife. It is a well-known concept in Eastern religions such as Buddhism as well as in Western Philosophy. The concept of all-knowing observer was presented in the early 19th century by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. He wrote a treatise on causal or scientific determinism and the all-knowing observer is now referred to as Laplace’s demon or Laplace’s superman. If someone, the demon, knows the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe, their past and future values for any given time can be calculated from the laws of classical mechanics. With this knowledge the demon can predict everything that happens in the universe.
     To do this would require an immense computer and knowledge. Many have ‘proven’ that is not possible. However, absence of proof in this case is not proof of absence. Just because our current state of knowledge cannot construct such a computer does not mean it is not possible at some time in the future.

     To begin with don’t think so big. Take 5 minutes each morning to predict the events of your day. You won’t be able to predict the actions of all external actors that affect you. However, if you are honest the prediction of your entire day will be surprisingly close to reality.