In 1945, Psychiatrist Dr Viktor E. Frankl wrote about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps in his autobiographical account, Man’s Search For Meaning. In his account Frankl sets out, not to detail all of the great horrors, which as he explains “…have already been described often enough (though less often believed)”, but with the “multitude of small torments”. In other words, he tells us, his account “will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”. Frankl therefore proceeds to describe his and others experiences of life in the concentration camps, showing us the best and worst of humanity and the bits in between.
Although Frankl’s account serves essentially to support his psychotherapy theory which he calls “logotherapy”, (a meaning centred form of therapy where the patient focuses on his future), it also reminds us of the power of human stories as a way of fostering connection, understanding and empathy in regards to situations which we have never experienced and lie far from the realm of our present lives. For to imagine a situation as brutal and horrific as the Holocaust, one needs to do more than be told about the statistics which make up the event. One could say that these statistics as facts about the event enter our minds but not our hearts. Stories about human experiences however directly penetrate, allowing us to vividly imagine oneself in the other’s position and in turn strengthen empathy, an essential ingredient for motivating compassionate behaviour.
This sharing of personal experience as a way to increase social empathy and compassionate behaviour is something which the Abbott Government’s “no information” policy in regards to Asylum seekers has blocked. Although we might receive a trickle of information from newspapers when there is a big story, these are all 3rd person accounts or commentary reporting on “incidents” which are quickly disputed and claimed to be false. The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention and as part of that inquiry visited immigration detention centres and asked children to draw about their life. These drawings will form the children’s submissions to the inquiry. This drawing was one of those submitted. To consider this drawing is to imagine that there is a child out there who lives behind bars and dreams of a better life. That child’s crime – to have been born in a country at war with itself or others. Viktor Frankl’s crime was to have been born Jewish. We need more of these stories and first hand accounts of a life behind bars in order to make us feel, to understand and to move us to action. Knowing that our country has an immigration detention policy is not enough. We need to understand how it feels to be subject to that policy and then decide whether it is humane.