Etty Hillesum kept a diary of the last two years of her life. She was murdered in 1942 at Auschwitz, age 29. Etty was a young, Dutch Jewish woman living under Nazi occupation. She lived in a pandemic even worse than this one. Her world was divided by hostile, tribal loyalties. The government was led by an autocrat more self-centered than ours, with even more extreme versions of nationalism. Their leader distracted attention away from growing suffering and death to draw attention to himself. It was an age of extremes of racism and white supremacy. Etty and her people were the scapegoats.
Yet, Etty found inner peace for herself, and she radiated grace and gentleness to others trapped in an age of fear, anger and threat. I think she has a lot to teach us today.
Think about these words from the diary of Etty Hillesman:
"After this war, two torrents will be unleashed in the world: a torrent of loving-kindness and a torrent of hatred. ...I should take the field against hatred."
"True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have vanquished and transformed our hatred of our fellow human beings of whatever race -- even into love one day, ...the only solution.
"I live here and now, this minute, this day, to the full, and life is worth living. And if I knew that I was going to die tomorrow, then I would say: It's a great shame, but it's been good while it lasted."
Etty argued with Jewish friends who were convinced that every German must be exterminated.
"The rottenness of others is in us, too... I see no other solution, I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves.
"[O]ne day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb. And if we should survive unhurt in body and soul, but above all in soul, without bitterness and without hatred, then we shall have a right to a say after the war. Maybe I am an ambitious woman: I would like to have just a tiny little bit to say.
"I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end.
"There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried underneath. Then He must be dug out again.
"I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath... I have strength enough, God, for suffering on a grand scale.
"Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so. I cannot promise You anything for tomorrow, but my intentions are good, You can see.
"You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. At night, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer."
Etty Hillesum inspires me. We live in a pandemic killing more Americans in this single year than died in the last 45 years of war. Our country is bitterly divided. We have an authoritarian, nationalistic president. We have deep racial enmity. Yet none of our challenges match the terrors Etty faced.
After Nov. 3, whoever wins, "two torrents will be unleashed in the world: a torrent of loving-kindness and a torrent of hatred." Which will we embrace? I believe Etty Hillesum offers us wisdom for national healing. Protect the holy place of love at the center of your being. Let your soul grow enough in love and goodness to earn your right to have a say after this war.
Lowell Grisham is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Fayetteville. Email him at [email protected]