A Legacy for Dark Times: Becoming a Balm for All Wounds

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“First and foremost, you must listen to your own rhythm, and try to live in accordance with it. Be attentive to what emerges from deep down. Often, our actions are only imitations, fulfillment of an assumption of duty, or a reflection of what we believe a human being “should” be. But the only certainty we may have about our life and our deeds can only spring from the very depth of our being.”  —Etty Hillesum

Some of the greatest nondual insights about the human condition were offered to our world in no ancient scroll but in the pages of diaries from a young Dutch Jewish school teacher and mystic, who at the age of 29 would perish in Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum. She lived just a few blocks from Anne Frank, another young prophet of hope in dark times—their diaries would become 20th century scripture and are particularly poignant today, as refugee children are kept in cages and ICE raids threaten immigrant communities. 

“I know that a new and kinder day will come,” Etty wrote, “And I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.” Her unusual conviction to not only embrace the suffering given her, and stand in solidarity with the suffering of her people, but to continuously praise life and express the love flooding her being to become “the thinking heart of the concentration camp,” offers us too a model of shaping our own age as the thinking hearts of our time, no matter the crisis we face.

In a time of great darkness and confusion, she bore witness to the power of love, and tried to reconcile the great reality of suffering and the appreciation for the beauty and meaning of life. “Despite everything,” she said again and again, “life is full of beauty and meaning.” Her determination to affirm the goodness of existence in spite of, or maybe even because of, the profound hopelessness around her, becomes a call for the ages. “Ultimately, we have just 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.”

Etty stands as an example of a soul untrapped by her most devastating situation and is an example of the transfiguration that can arise from dancing in the flames of the human condition no matter the circumstances. Her invitation to every time of apocalypse, every unspeakable dark night, is to consent entirely to love's work in our hearts. 

Her last diary entry was thrown from a train taking her to her ultimate charnel ground and contained perhaps her greatest spiritual legacy for the world, “We must be willing to act like a balm for all wounds.” As a child of a Holocaust  survivor, I often ask myself how we are meant to continue on amidst the no small share of crisis offered our own generation. Etty’s tender and radical wisdom stands out as a precious reminder to listen to and trust the grace at the center of our being. And to keep rising for each other.


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