“Life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful, despite everything.” Etty Hillesum
This is a very strange and disconcerting time – life in the time of COVID-19. Moving from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Safe” seems even more confusing and anxiety-provoking, whether we are anxious to get back to life as it used to be (can there be any such thing?) or fearful that with things opening back up too soon and health being sacrificed, or desperate about our livelihoods and being able to survive this economic down-turn, we are living in the tension.
I found some interesting and comforting audio podcasts on the Franciscan Retreat Center website (Prior Lake), which can be found at this link. I was drawn to one of these entitled “Despite Everything Life is Full of Beauty and Meaning.” Cindy Geiger, one of their Retreat Leaders was sharing how inspired she was by a young woman (in her 20s) who speaks in her journals from inside a Nazi concentration camp, during World War II. It was definitely a time of hardship, pain, suffering, uncertainty, anxiety. This woman – Etty Hillesum – inspires with her ability to find goodness, beauty and meaning, even in her dire circumstances.
Cindy Geiger adds her own beautiful commentaries on what really spoke to her, and offers ideas for how to find beauty and meaning within our current circumstances and hardships. One suggestion she makes is to end the day with a gratitude journal – writing down a number of treasures, wonders seen throughout the day. I do this practice and it is incredibly helpful, but it occurred to me that sometimes we just can’t see such wonders, for the bleakness in our hearts. I thought maybe a gratitude jar could be useful, instead. When you are able to notice little (or bigger) blessings, you could write each on a small piece of paper and put it in the jar. These would accumulate. Then, on those days when it’s hard to see any beauty or goodness, you could pull out one or two of the slips of paper, remind yourself of how God comes to us in little things, and maybe begin again to notice any beauty that might be around you now.
Cindy Geiger tells of a YouTube video (about 60 minute podcast) that uses music and someone who reads as Etty from Etty’s Diaries. This is called: Blazing Harmonies: the Spirit of Etty Hillesum. It is wonderful to listen to, hearing the human feelings she describes so beautifully, and then the surprising wisdom and inspiration. I encourage you to watch and decide for yourself.
I might also offer another such inspiration from the times of World War II and the Holocaust. I remember how a movie from 1997, just cut directly into my heart, with it’s horrible reality, it’s counter-intuitive optimism and somehow feel-good sense to it – a movie called “Life is Beautiful.”
We are not the first to experience this kind of dread and anguish – mental, emotional and physical – during a particularly disparaging time in history. We can learn from those who have also lived in such times. Etty Hillesum is one with whom I was unfamiliar, until today.