Thursday, January 28, 2016

Etty Hillesum: A Woman of Love

Fear and hatred are not new to society. Etty Hillesum was a Jewish women in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Reading Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, entries full of declarations of love for life in horrific circumstances, has given me fuel to look deeper within and extend even more love to myself and to each and every person around me. Her words fill me with courage and the resolution to continue to acknowledge and release my hatred and fears no matter what my circumstances are. Over and over Etty proclaims life is beautiful and rich and meaningful. I agree with her. I find her positive outlook on life not whimsical, rather refreshingly grounded in a deep connection to the width within.

Etty never claimed the inward journey is any easy one; she experienced a lot of pain, sorrow, sickness, and suffering: “I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with the millions of others from many centuries, and it is all part of life.”(p.157) Knowing that her life and the lives of other Jews were being hunted and annihilated, didn't diminish Etty's apperciation of the fullness of life and death. It is in fact that fullness which makes life so meaningful and precious to her, “by excluding death from our own life we cannot have a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.”(p.155). Etty was able to see the broad spectrum of life, “my capable brain tells me that there are no absolutes, that everything is relative, endlessly diverse, and in eternal motion, and that is precisely for that reason that life is so exciting and fascinating, but also so very, very painful.” (p.49)

Page after page, I was moved by Etty's open love for mankind and her unwillingness to fall into hatred or to group people together. She writes,
If there were only one decent German, than he should be cherished despite the whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.... If things were to come to such a pass that I began to hate people, then I would know that my soul was sick and I should have to look for a cure as quickly as possible. (p.11)
Amazingly and commendably, she never does fall into hatred, despite being denied her freedoms, sent to a concentration camp and eventually sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Etty lived a full life of love and compassion, a life I look upon with respect and admiration.

Reading the book, I was reminded of 8 years ago when I watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It got late and I went to bed ¾ through the film when the world was coming to an end very very soon. I went to sleep shook up and with a prayer, 'May I meet the end and the chaos that it will bring with love and compassion. May I be generous enough to share my last bread.' With my children, then 1 and 2 years old, asleep in the room next to me, I doubted very much that I was that far on my path. So I prayed even harder. 'I may not be completely full of love yet but may I be filled with it when tested. May I keep working on myself so that I may meet chaos and fear with love.'

I was also reminded of my first reaction walking through a refugee hall a couple months ago. When I saw the 150 beds crammed closely beside each other and I thought to myself, 'How would I react if I were in this situation? Would I be kind? Would I be open? Would I shine love within and without?' Etty writes, “And wether or not I am a valuable human being will only become clear from my behavior in arduous circumstances. And if I should not survive, how I die will show who I really am.” (p.177) Reading her words, I thought, 'oh yes, may I be of value in all the circumstances I am faced with in my life and in my death.'

There is ample fear and hatred in our society from terrorist acts and from the difficulties of integrating refugees into our different cultures. Therefore I am all the more committed to looking inward and meeting my own fears and hatred. Etty Hillesum writes, “we have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn't even be thinking of hating our so-called enemy.” (p.211) I think as soon as we can meet and be with the hatred within us, all hatred without will evaporate.

Through Etty's deep self exploration, she was able to expand her sense of who belonged to her to the broadest sense. She included everyone. She was able to hold love and compassion for everyone. Remarkably, she refused to add any hate or unkind acts into the extremely hostile world she lived in, “each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks ought to be destroyed in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable.” (p.212) A few entries later she adds, “We have one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” (p.218)

I am completed awed by such open love in such dark times. Her belief that life is beautiful and meaningful stays so strong throughout her changing circumstance. She doesn't deny suffering. “I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes.” (p.227) In fact she sees the suffering as a means for furthering her development, “If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon, to attain a great humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will all have been for nothing.” (p.190) I believe in all that Etty states but I have a lot of study and self examination to still do to do in order to be able to live her words. Her depth humbles me and encourages me.

I hold a vision of a world where we are all brave enough to love ourselves fully and therefore each other. A world where the connectedness of beings and nature is an experienced and trusted truth. Where fear fades not by force but because it is no longer useful. Reading An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork reminds me that others hold this vision too. Her diaries and letters fuel me to:
  • Continue to constantly study myself
  • Continue to pray and meditate daily
  • Keep turning to great works and teachers for inspiration and insight
  • Continue to expand my sense of who belongs to my “we”
  • Extend kindness and love to all of myself so I can extend it to all of humanity
  • As best I can meet my suffering with open eyes and grace
  • Ride the waves of life never forgetting that life is beautiful and meaningful
Etty said “we must begin with ourselves every day anew” (p.155), and may I do just that with patience, compassion, and a lot of self love.

May we all know self love and inner peace,

Hillesum, Etty, J. G. Gaarlandt, and Etty Hillesum. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; And, Letters from Westerbork. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. Print.

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