Соловецкий листок

Hieromonk of the Solovetsky Monastery TO REMAIN HUMAN (A LIFE OF THE HEART): offices, mega-cities, concentration camps. Part 1. «Even if your body is enslaved, keep the soul free»

8 июля 2019 г.

This article is the annotation to a series of sermons that took place with the pilgrims of Solovetsky Monastery under the general title ‘To Remain Human’. The audio of these speeches are posted on the Solovetsky Monastery website in the section ‘Pastoral Page’ (see the subsection ‘Talks About Personality-Related Problems’). The discussions considered the topic of human life in the context of information technologies and economic globalization. Offices and mega-cities have become the natural habitat for many people. And this environment, in its psychological characteristics and impact on people’s minds, resembles the environment of concentration camps. In the years of persecution of Christians in the USSR, the New Martyrs and Confessors, who were serving terms in concentration camps, left us their experience of how to remain human in subhuman conditions. The study of their life experiences, as well as its application in modern times, is of great interest. Many people experiencing an identity crisis and who are at risk of losing themselves would like to know how to prevent the impending disintegration of identity. How do you stay true to yourself in a rapidly changing world, in which “trends” often come into conflict with your moral principles? The answer to these and many other questions can be found in the life experience of the New Martyrs and Confessors. Striving to base their lives on the Truth, they did not lose themselves in the whirl of events and found their way into the world. 

If a human life is not based on the Truth,
it becomes a game.
If a man keeps his heart sensible,
it will help him to find a way out of the most confusing situation.

What does it mean to be human and how does one stay human, especially when it comes to extreme, rapidly changing, and uncertain conditions; confusing situations, external and psychological pressure; terror and forced atmosphere of fear in concentration camps, isolation, sharply restricted freedom of movement and deprivation of the right to outwardly express oneself; standardization and depersonalization in offices and production; overcrowding of mega-cities, that causes a terrible feeling of loneliness?

The former prisoners of concentration camps in the period of anti-religious persecution have found the answer to this question. After all the hardest trials they had to pass through, they did not break down and remained human. Moreover, in the most difficult situations, they could find the strength to be cheerful and support the others.  After being released from prisons they didn’t give up in despair, but returned to active life and realized their potential and talents.

Can their experience be of interest to us, the people of the 21st century? After all, most mega-city residents and office workers neither live behind a barbed wire, nor suffer from terror?


Yes, there’s no barbed wire. But man is trapped on every side by obligations of mortgages, insurances and loans. He has a narrowly specialized education. In order to work he must receive various certificates, sometimes too many. He gets involved into different activities that exhaust him. Paperwork and infoglut can overwhelm his personality just like the terror and atmosphere of fear in concentration camps.


The characteristic feature for prisoners was the narrowing of consciousness. They perceived life outside the camp as something unreal. People were forgetting who they used to be (in modern terms, they lost their sense of themselves and didn’t see any forward-looking perspective. As soon as their inner life stopped, they concentrated on the horrible “now”. They were only concerned about the problems of current survival: food, sleep, the search for easier work. The psychological portrait of a prisoner that Viktor E. Frankl gives in his book Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp, is comparable in some features to the state of many modern people. Indeed, many of them are focused almost exclusively on the problems of current survival: earn money and buy this and that with this money. Intense concentration at work leads to the situation when any other human activity that is not directly related to work gets suppressed. Communicating with others, reading books and religious life come to naught. But here’s a paradox. Due to the narrowing of consciousness and its robotization, a person loses edge in the area of ​​his own profession. Modern business management expects a person to be able to empathise in social situations. But a person obsessed with his own life and withdrawn into himself (the one who has lost love) loses the ability to feel the boundaries of circumstances, the notion of what is acceptable and unacceptable.

According to the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the ability to gain insight into situations is one of the main factors contributing to the survival of a person in extreme conditions. Bruno B. had been imprisoned in concentration camps for 11 months.  With first-hand experience he studied the system of suppression of a prisoner’s personality, and published his observations in the book The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age. Describing in detail the psychologically sophisticated methods that were used to destroy people, he also described the strategies that people used to survive.

Many of those strategies have no connection with the Divinely Revealed Truth, which empowers a person to obtain a firm life position. Bruno wasn’t religious. And, perhaps, this is why he couldn’t know what the New Martyrs knew when they were imprisoned in concentration camps during the years of anti-religious persecution. It is about their experience of inner life and Divine Intervention.

Bruno, as a sincere man and a truth-seeker, in some of his reflections gets to the idea of ​​inner life. In particular, he says that only those prisoners who knew for sure that ‘the essential’ would always remain with them could challenge their fear despite any trials. But on the other hand, as a representative of secular world his ‘essential’ was too earthborn, and therefore too fragile. He reached the idea of possibility for a man to confront destructive influences pointed directly at him. However, by his own admission, he didn’t know what a man could contrapose to external influence.

Bruno Bettelheim wrote that in such a rigid system as a concentration camp, any attempts at defense worked rather to the camp’s advantage and not to the interests of defense. That means that whatever strategies, described by Bruno, the prisoners used, they would face undesirable consequences: come to regression, lose themselves, adopt the SS ideology or copy guards’ behavior.

The experience of the New Martyrs was different. Since their strategies were based on their will to preserve communication with God and follow the Truth, their consciousness was not subjected to deformation that Bruno was writing about. Of course, his book contains valuable ideas that can help a thoughtful reader to form his own opinion on how to avoid losing his personality in the rush of everyday life. But if ideas, even very good ones, after taking-off the ground do not soar towards the heights of the spirit, they become only hints.

When the spirit of a man reflects the brightness of the Holy Spirit’s grace, that man gains the opportunity to rise above the circumstances that seek to seize his attention and determine his behavior. This is described by the New Martyrs. Bruno in his turn pictured not the way that takes a man to radiance, but the factors that aim to suppress the rational human activity which a person uses to oppose the external influence.

The prisoners were exposed to a deliberate system of humiliation, which required them to report for the most ridiculous reasons. Their living conditions encouraged them to be confrontational to each other. And if people didn’t have love to resist the imposed behavioral pattern, they would ruin relationship between each other. The cumulative result of these and other influences was infantilization of prisoners. It became evident in looking out for the current moment only. Such people became incapable of long-term relationships; they were quick-tempered and easily appeased. They would bite and scratch in fights. They loved to boast and lie and were not ashamed of it.  Doesn’t this description refer to our times too?

The regression of prisoners was intensified by the impressions that they received while doing pointless work. They were told to cut ice on the sea, to take water from one hole and pour it into another, to move logs from one place to another. The consciousness of prisoners was also suppressed by constantly hearing death threats from the guards.

Today no one forces people to cut ice. But many people see no sense in writing numerous reports that takes hours. Nobody threatens workers with death, but on the other hand, they live in constant fear of being fired. And a person who has neither faith nor inner life risks perceiving this dismissal as a social death.

Many modern people are well acquainted with the phenomenon of regression, which is often connected to simultaneously doing several tasks. This may apply not only to office work, but any other work as well. For example, a man is driving home and talking on the phone at the same time. During the conversation, another driver “cuts him off”, and since his mind is involved into the conversation, he can’t restrain anger towards the rude driver. He loses his temper. After a while his second phone rings … When the man gets home, he has no strength for anything else but passive consuming products of mass culture and staring at the hypnotizing TV screen. He is not thinking critically, analyzing or making a choice: is it necessary to watch this program or not, is it somehow connected to his personality or not? His phone and tablet are at hand. He is trying to get his mind together and think over his own thoughts, but the hand is reaching for the phone, and the screen is welcoming with a new image of a half-naked woman and some news link. And since the integrity, which could have hold back the passion, is lost, the man splits between chaotic desires. This time between lust and curiosity. His attention, which was about to “get up”, is “knocked down” again.

The consciousness of a person living this way can be partly compared to a spilt bag of grain. The grain spilt out and ants dragged it away. Seemingly each ant takes only a grain, but all together they carry away the whole bag. Or another analogy: when a man loosens control of his mind, the personality that he considered his own suddenly disappears, just like gas evaporates from an opened bottle, leaving it empty inside.

For a man in such condition, it is difficult to resist both the internal passionate chaotic impulses and the impulses coming from outside. For example, a phone beeps, informing about an incoming message, and the person immediately is reaching for the phone. He feels a formidable desire to read the message right now.

Due to the fact that the man’s reasonable activity is suppressed and scattered in a fuss, his desire to read the message turns into compulsion. The person whose mind is reset to zero has practically no resources to resist a compulsive desire. If he were calm and focused, then, after hearing an SMS signal, he would be able to decide whether to check the message later — when it is convenient for him.

In this simple example with a text message, the man is reminiscent of a prisoner in a concentration camp. The camp administration tried to suppress a person’s identity and strictly determine his daily life. According to the administration, the entire activity of a man was to be centered on the established regulations. From their point of view, a man was supposed to have no other motivations for actions, except the ones established by the authorities.

The camp authorities sought to bind prisoners to the system. If a person became confined exclusively to the system, then later he would stop doing anything in accordance with his own inner needs. Over the time, he would turn into an “old man” - a man who does only what the administration commands. He would forget how to make decisions and would completely switch to the imposed rules.

And a person who cannot resist checking a new message right after the phone signal, in fact is choosing the road that leads him to a similar metamorphosis. When the system notifies about an incoming SMS, the person, for example, might be reading a book or thinking about something. But he stops what he was doing, following and obeying a signal from the outside. Doesn’t it resemble a prisoner’s behavior?

Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should stop checking any messages. The point is that a person must decide when to read a new message, and not the signal of his telephone.

Inability to resist impulses, both internal and external, can be illustrated by one more example. Here is a man enthusiastically talking on the phone. How many other things is he doing at the same time? He can draw on wallpaper, bite his nails, walk around the room, and make empty gestures.

When the entire person’s attention is drawn to the conversation, his consciousness in a certain sense has no backup. And chaotic impulses attack it directly, bypassing the barrier of analytical and critical processing of information. If a calm and focused person gets an idea to draw on the wallpaper, he would have an internal resource to deny this desire. But if his attention is completely switched to the conversation or scattered in bustle, he begins to implement the impulse with no hesitation.

This principle to some extent lies behind the phenomenon of gaming addiction. On one hand, there appears to be a dominant excitation focus in the cerebral cortex. And everything that the person sees, hears and thinks about person concentrate around this excitation focus. For example, a man sees a fur tree on the street and he feels the desire to play the game, where his character fought with a battle ax.

On the other hand, the person suppresses (or doesn’t develop) the mechanisms that could help him to overcome his desire to enter the game. In other words, the mechanisms which enable us to restrain ourselves get suppressed.

If a person does not develop them, they slowly begin to fade away. And some people have them initially undeveloped. For example, when a person has never observed fast or accustomed himself to correlate his desires with the interests of other people. It is also when one has never tried to pray, because in prayer we are tempted to get back to our own thoughts, but we make an effort to cut them off in order to have the opportunity to delve into the meaning of the prayer words. These control mechanisms can be suppressed by involving a person into games or fussy situations, by distracting his attention and depressing his rational activity.

The last point, in particular, was what the Nazis tried to implement in concentration camps. It was known that if reasonable human activity gets suppressed, a person accepts any impulses sent from the outside without thinking or trying to define his own attitude to what is going on. And when personal attitude disappears, a zombie begins. The prisoners turned into zombies, when they rejected any attempt to comprehend their own behavior and came to a state when they were ready to accept anything coming from the outside (Илья Латыпов. Часть 1. Управленческая стратегия: как из личностей сделать биомассу; Часть 2. Личность против системы: 2 стратегии).

In order to remain himself, a person must make continuing effort to develop his inner life and tighten into integrity all the meanings that initiate his activity. The heartbeat of inner life must resist the rhythm that the external environment is trying to impose.

The environment dictates its own pace. How can we avoid “soaking” with its influence? The answer to this question is the foundation for the whole system of human survival in extreme conditions. As it was noted, we can call ‘extreme’ the challenging conditions that people have in megalopolises and offices. One of these challenges is that some companies apply techniques that were used in sects and totalitarian cults to their employees. Sects have learnt to “seize” people’s free time and strength. An adherent of a sect (cult) works for it with enthusiasm to the point of exhaustion, when he gets “thrown out” and replaced by another one.

The sectarian methods of influencing man’s mind are reminiscent of the methods used in concentration camps; where apart from everything else people were made to believe that no action could change their fate. Those who took this thought to heart were losing hope and giving up in despair. Among other things, the prisoners were subjected to humiliation and punishment for any display of their emotions and attempt to preserve their personality. As a result, a prisoner would lose the ability to think for himself and make up his mind. A man began to do only what he was told to. In other words, he got locked into external regulations. The essence of the impact was to condition any motivation of human activity by the camp administration. When a person had completely switched to the external instructions, his inner life source dried out.

Only those who saved this source of inner life were able to survive. If inner life didn’t exist in a person and if it didn’t set the pace for his life which was different from the pace of external aggression, then the mind of this man was “imbued” and “reflashed” by the rhythm of the external environment.

If human intelligence gets suppressed, the mechanism preventing the formation of conditioned reflexes switches off. For example, the conditioned reflex of dogs can be shown as follows: when the light is turned on, secretion of saliva starts. The human mind is able to prevent formation of such a stable reaction. If a man, for example, is at a meeting, and the light switches on, he may force himself to stay seated. But if his mind has been turned off for a long time, it offers no resistance, and the pressing environment ingrains a conditioned reflex into his psyche. He is told something and gets upset: he is told another thing and gets angry. The environment affects such a mind and turns it in a certain direction. Such a mind becomes dependent on environmental fluctuations; it loses the ability to choose independently the trajectory of movement.

If the “millstones of mind”, started by the inner life, rotate in one direction, it is not easy to turn them back. In order to stop them one needs to push the person into a state of shock, apathy, or inaction, because when they stand still, they can be forced to turn in any direction.  If one pours rotten grain into the millstones started by inner life, pure flour will go out. That means that hard trials always make us stronger. In difficult situations, a man with such a mindset will realize that in order to overcome them he needs more patience, more hope, more love. And if the “millstones of mind” are launched by the aggressive rhythm of environment, they will turn the purest grain into rotten flour. Because such man will feel irritation, envy and condemnation in everything that he sees or hears. He passes any information through his poisoned mind, which shows him the world and other people as in a funhouse mirror. A person who has no love inside gets broken by sorrows, while the one who loves becomes even stronger - “all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

There is another analogy for inner life: if the window fan is working and its blades are rotating, it’s not easy for birds to get inside the room. But if the blades stop, the birds from the outside can fly into the room and peck something.

If a person freezes in a neutral position, the external effects will overcome him. As it says in Lewis Carrol’s novel, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. In relation to Christian life, we can say that a person must actively develop his inner life so that he can preserve his inner peace. If a man is standing still, and a fast-moving passerby runs into him, the man will fall down. But if a man is running, he has the advantage of impulse (movement force). And when a fast-walking passerby runs into him, he will remain standing on his feet.

If a person doesn’t seek to the light of the Gospel, then darkness begins to surround him. If a man lives in a spiritual inaction, then the cold of darkness begins to freeze him and finally gets to his heart. The person gets overwhelmed with sadness, depression, unwilling to live. In order to get out of this situation, one needs to start moving towards the light of the Gospel, read the Gospel, the Psalter, the books by the Holy Fathers, listen to lectures, read the lives of the New Martyrs and Confessors.

The New Martyrs and Confessors, priests, monks and pious lay people in the years of anti-religious persecution lost their property and social status. They suffered from hunger and poverty. But despite everything they didn’t despair and found strength to be happy even in the most difficult conditions. Their experience of assimilating the light of the Gospel is extremely valuable in our times.

If the soul is not warmed by the spark of the Gospel, external reality can be perceived very unattractively. Man sees neither meaning of his life nor the point of everything around him. He prosaically fixes the objects of reality which he interacts with: a table, a chair, a refrigerator. If external objects look unaesthetic (shabby wallpaper), and living among them is potentially traumatic (working routine, hunger), then the man feels desire to get drunk and disconnect from the process of recognizing this kind of reality.

If a person doesn’t see the meaning of his life, it is difficult for him to see the meaning of the enduring difficulties. He loses heart, gives up in despair; the “millstones of his mind” stop moving. And the external environment begins to dictate him its own rhythm, transmit traumatic images to his mind. He begins to consider these images. And gradually his mind gets steeped with these traumatic images and accepts the rhythm of the environment.

The impulses triggered by the environment translate into the state of mind, which starts pressuring the person from inside. The mind falls into a rut from which it can’t get out, until there is preponderance of positive force. A man ‘gets into a rut’ when he starts to continually chew over all the negative things that surround him. His attention gets captured by the situations that he finds hopeless. His own mind brings him into depression. His mind in this case resembles a hare, which got caught up in the headlights of a driving car, but instead of jumping to the forest, he is running in the corridor of light. To get out of the mental impasse, one needs a positive overbalance.

The experience of the New Martyrs and Confessors who had gone through concentration camps and remained human is also relevant here. In camps, in order to preserve independent activity of mind and keep it away from getting into the “corridor”, people were arranging conferences, theater performances, and newspapers. They wrote poems and played music. But human approaches are vulnerable. A violin can be taken away; a list of poems can be pulled out of hands. Of course, there were those who composed poems and kept them in their memory. But no poem could feed the soul. The souls were nourished by the connection with the Author of Life.

Personal growth in such fields as art, literature and science can be suppressed. Books can be taken away, eyesight lost, hands shackled. But every person has the potential for infinite development – being an image of God he is seeking for his Creator - “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). The development of virtues has infinite potential - “To all perfection I see a limit, but your commands are boundless” (Ps. 119:96). Those who acquired skill in prayer, with God’s help managed to rescue their minds from the “corridor”. Their pulse of inner life saved them from being saturated by the rhythm of the external environment – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

All this can be summed up by the words that the Reverend Seraphim of Sarov said to father Ioan (Krestyankin). During the years of religious persecution, father John was repressed. And before he was sent to camps, the Saint appeared to him with the words: “Even if your body is enslaved, keep the soul free”.

Тип: Соловецкий листок