Suffering is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

I’m reading the journal and letters of a 27- to 29-year-old Jewish woman in Holland in 1941-43, called Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork (1996). Most of the journal is written while she’s living in Amsterdam — working, having love affairs, taking walks, socialising with friends, enjoying life, and at the same time “working on” herself, “rooting out” things she recognises as harmful or hateful in herself, with the help of a therapist/lover. A small part of the journal, and all the letters, are written after she is at Westerbork transit camp (from Aug. 1942 until Sept. 1943).

The book covers a lot of ground, many themes and ideas. What resonates for me most is this: “All disasters stem from us. Why is there a war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbor.”

For today, though, I want to focus on Etty’s views of suffering, in light of another, contemporary story.

Etty seems to me to make much of the meaning of suffering, what can be learned from it, what it teaches her, how to prepare for it. Those passages in the book uniformly feel forced to me, feel like someone trying to make meaning, to make it make sense. It feels to me, reading these passages, that making meaning is a way to exercise control, and Etty seems intermittently aware of this. She pre-enacts what she will do when her call-up card comes, what she will take with her, how she will feel and what her attitude will be. She repeatedly avers that she can bear what is in store for her, which to me reads as a charm to ward off fear and perhaps even ‘what is in store.’ Otherwise, why keep writing it down, unless to convince herself?  I’m speaking as someone who has done exactly this in my own journals. What she does seems perfectly natural, borne of raw fear of the unknown and a desire to master it, desire to maintain a detached and loving attitude in the face of destruction and cruelty. As I said, she sometimes seems aware that she’s done this: “A few days ago I thought that nothing more could happen to me, that I had suffered everything in anticipation.” (July 1942)

Before she volunteers in July 1942 to be deported, along with the other Jews —  Etty apparently could have been given an exemption or been hidden, either of which might have been a temporary or longer-lasting stay of execution; at one point she says she would take a medical exemption, but apparently she’s not offered one — she spends time preparing herself mentally for the challenge of suffering. She tells herself that she must persevere and be productive; “I shall have to adapt myself in advance, make incapacity part of my daily life, of my whole self, the better to control and then dismiss it.”  She seeks to train herself “in more frugal habits,” to pursue her secret appetites and “try to root them out.” She speaks often about how external things (which she enumerates to us many times — all her specific books, flowers, photographs) are just props, that it’s what one carries inside oneself that counts. This seems to me to be making a virtue of necessity, since she knows she likely won’t have any control over the externals. (Again, been there and done that!)


Here are some of her thoughts on suffering. She rarely writes about it from March 1941-June 1942, except about her own physical suffering and her jealousy and desire relating to her therapist/lover. It’s when it becomes apparent that suffering will come to her, one way or another (whether she ‘chooses’ it, acquiesces to it, or is conscripted), that she seems to take up the topic in earnest.

Her journal entries in July predate her time in the transit camp; there are no entries for August; those for Sept. and Oct. are the last of the journal entries and are written in Amsterdam when she is on leave from Westerbork for a month.

She recognises the universality of suffering

“Yesterday I suddenly thought: there will always be suffering, and whether one suffers from this or from that really doesn’t make much difference. It is the same with love. One should be less and less concerned with the love object and more and more with love itself. … People may grieve more for a cat that has been run over than for countless victims of a city that has been bombed out of existence. It is not the object but the suffering …” (April 1942, right after they have begun to wear the yellow stars)

Does it matter if it is the Inquisition that causes people to suffer in one century, and war and pogroms in another? To suffer senselessly, as the victims would put it? Suffering has always been with us, does it really matter in what form it comes? All that matters is how we bear it and how we fit it into our lives.”  (July 1942)

“I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries, and it is all part of life.” (July 1942)

Many people are being killed this very moment, all over the world, while I sit here writing beside my rose-red cyclamen under my steel office lamp.” (Sept. 1942)

She does not blame God, or anyone but herself (all of us) for the suffering she sees

“I shall have to pray for this German soldier. Out of all those uniform one has been given a face now. There will be other faces, too, in which we shall be able to read something we understand: that German soldiers suffer as well. There are no frontiers between suffering people, and we must pray for them all” (July 1942)

She tells God that she knows “You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard a little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, our lives, Neither do I hold you responsible.” (July 1942)

She believes that people suffer needlessly, when they could avoid it

“The greatest cause of suffering in so many of our people is their utter lack of inner preparation.” (July 1942)

“The most depressing thing of all is that the mental horizon of all the people I work with [at the Jewish Council] is so narrow. They don’t even suffer deep down. They just hate and blind themselves to their own pettiness, they intrigue, they are still ambitious to get on. …” (July 1942)

She believes that suffering and death are meaningful, meant to teach us, and our response to them determines our worthiness as individuals and as a culture

“Most of us in the West don’t understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead. We cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred and despair. God knows it’s only too easy to understand why. But when we are deprived of our lives, are we really deprived of very much? We have to accept death as part of life, even the most horrible of deaths. And don’t we live an entire life in each one of our days, and does it really matter if we live a few days more or less?  … It is a question of living from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain.” (June 1942)

Whether or not I am a valuable human being will only become clear from my behavior in more arduous circumstances. And if I should not survive, how I die will show me who I really am.” (July 1942)

“If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon, to attain a greater humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will all have been for nothing.”  (July 1942)

“Man suffers most through his fears of suffering. …  But the idea of suffering (which is not the reality, for real suffering is always fruitful and can turn life into a precious thing) must be destroyed. If you destroy the ideas behind which life lies imprisoned as behind bars, then you liberate your true life, its real mainsprings, and then you will also have the strength to bear real suffering, your own and the world’s.” (Sept. 1942)

“These two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed. I have learned to love Westerbork.” (Sept. 1942)

“How is it that my spirit, far from being oppressed, seemed to grow lighter and brighter there? It is because I read the signs of the times and they did not seem meaningless to me. Surrounded by my writers and poets and the flowers on my desk, I loved life. And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, I found confirmation of my love of life. Life in those drafty barracks was no other than life in this protected, peaceful room. Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great, meaningful whole.” (Sept. 1942)

“What matters is not that we preserve our lives at any cost, but how we preserve them. … [I]f we have nothing to offer a desolate postwar world but our bodies sved at any cost, if we fail to draw new meaning from the deep wells of our distress and despair, then it will not be enough.” (Dec. 1942 letter)

Etty’s great hope in going to the camp is that she will be the “thinking heart” for the camp: “I hope to be a center of peace in that madhouse,” she writes in July 1942. In Oct., writing from Amsterdam on leave from Westerbork, she reflects that she was “sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness, and lay awake for hours letting all the many, too many impressions of a much-too-long day wash over me, and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of the whole concentration camp.”

She finds significance, identity and meaning in her role as the camp’s “thinking heart.”


In her last entry, in Oct. 1942, she writes: “When I suffer for the vulnerable, is it not for my own vulnerability that I really suffer?”

This question seems to me one of her truest statements.


With this in mind, I heard a story on BBC radio today (RAM file) about a Congolese woman named Zawadi, about age 30, who has suffered brutal horrors and torture wrought by other humans. (She is one of many who have suffered these things, as Etty recognised in her own time.) Last spring, her family and friends were killed with knives, bayonettes, and machettes by the Interahamwe, rebel Hutu militia. Her brother was decapitated when he refused to rape her. Two of her children were killed as she stood with them. She strangled her infant child with her own hands on the command of the rebel soldiers. She was gang raped, her pelvis damaged permanently from the force of the rapes, and now she is stigmatised because she’s a rape victim. She wishes aloud that she had been killed along with the others.

She works now as a porter to make money but doesn’t have enough for a place to live (she’s living in a rented house courtesy of the church through this month) or enough food. She has one daughter surviving, a 5-year-old named Response, whom she cites as the reason she killed her infant child rather than be killed herself — “I had to stay alive for her.” She fears for Response’s safety, having seen younger children raped.

Zawadi is listless, devastated, grieving. She says,” I get nothing out of life. I can’t see anything in the future.” She wants the Interahamwe, the rebel soldiers, driven out of the Congo, but she does not want them killed: “I still feel that I don’t want those people to be killed. I know that God will judge them.”


Etty’s fervent belief was that the German soldiers deserved compassion, and that others’ hatred and evil was inextricably tied to her own pettiness, her own rottenness, her own bitterness and hatred, which she continually worked to extricate from herself. She also says, very early on, that “the problem of our age” is that “hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind,” quite an astonishing assessment when you think about it.

(Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams, more recently, has said the same thing: “Much more importantly, the entire message of the Bible on this point is that the problem begins with us, not them. Jesus is killed because people who think they are good are in fact trapped in self-deception and unable to get out of the groove of their self-justifying behaviour. And the New Testament invites every reader to recognise this in himself or herself.”)

I wonder whether Zawadi loved life and thought it was beautiful, as Etty did, before her brutal experience (and her continuing trauma and instability), and whether she can love it again.

Yes, to some extent we can choose our attitude, I guess, whether by working on it, making it a project, as Etty exhaustively seems to do; or by letting ourselves be graced (Etty seems to do this, too), allowing our own obstacles to grace to become transparent; and, yes, to some extent we can recognise our own rottenness, our own complicity and cooperation in war and other violence (see Why I Pay My Taxes by Ben Metcalfe in Harper’s for more on this as it applies to us wealthy Americans), and we can seek to be peace-filled and to project peace; but these words — grace, peace, complicity — seem arrogant and naive in the face of such brutality, such cruelty, such inhumane treatment. The idea that Zawadi’s snippyness with neighbors (perhaps), or mine, leads to this kind of brutality seems utterly ridiculous and beside the point.

And yet — when I am aware at how angry, resentful, and bitter I can feel in the most ordinary and benign of circumstances, with so little provocation, and how I lash out, or come very close to lashing out, I do truly feel that these reactions are the stuff of war, writ so much larger and allowed to proliferate in an environment hospitable to growing this particular kind of poison.

What I don’t feel is that suffering means much. Or that how we handle it means much. Zawadi’s response to her suffering seems to me acceptable, just as Etty’s response to hers seems to me acceptable, not that I am any judge of it. Is suffering really some kind of test? It’s hard for me to see how the victim of brutality has much to prove to anyone.



Etty is a Jew who is told a few times that her ideas are Christian (she does read the New Testament regularly). She may also be a Buddhist! The Eightfold Noble Path, which is a path away from suffering, seems very much like Etty’s plan of discipline throughout the book. It includes:

Correct thought, like avoiding the wish to harm others. Etty speaks of this often, her desire to love and not hate.

Correct speech. Etty several times rejects others’ ‘intriquing’ about incidents and the future, and she several times refuses to thrust the burden of her anxieties on others.

Correct actions.

Correct livelihood. Etty questions her work continuously, wondering whether she is frivolous, too cerebral, etc., and considering how to best use her energies.

Correct understanding (developing genuine wisdom).

Correct effort. Refers to joyful perseverence needed to continue in meditation. Etty strives for this.

Correct mindfulness. Trying in maintain awareness of the ‘here and now.’ Etty tries to do this but spends a lot of time, as one might do when keeping a journal, reflecting on past events and imagining future ones.

Correct concentration: Keeping a steady, calm and attentive state of mind. Etty repeats a sort of mantra several times: “Slowly, steadily, patiently.”

I’m all for seeing reality (including suffering) as it is, for living compassionately, for living fully here and now. It feels to me, and has long felt to me, that less managing of my life is the pathway, if there is a pathway, for me. Attaching meaning — having to work to give something meaning — feels … false … somehow.  It feels, as it seems it was at least in part for Etty, an unchallenged way to achieve a more solid identity, a purpose, a reason for living; a way to pre-emptively reduce suffering by understanding it; a way to make my life and death matter and so take away the sting of suffering and mortality.

But do our lives really matter? When hundreds of thousands of people are killed in gas chambers, does each of their lives matter? When an infant dies, strangled by its mother or drowned with siblings in a hotel bathtub, does its life matter? Does it have meaning? Does that infant’s suffering, or its mother’s, have meaning? And can the suffering humans do to each other really be understood? It can be explained (Girard and others do a good job of this, I think) but that’s not the same thing.

I referenced Ben Metcalfe’s “Why I Pay My Taxes” earlier. In it, he says:

“I have killed. From the first day I paid taxes to the United States government (on April 15, 1985) my spree began, and it has expanded geometrically since. I do not remember a time when I mailed in a check or a money order without a clear understanding that some part of my donation would be put toward murder. … [A] quick glance at the newspapers over the past quarter century will confirm my kills in Central and South America, in Northern and Central Africa, in the hills of lower Asia, and of course in the Middle East. …

“I have, from the comfort of my couch, made the nations to cower before me. I have, during commercial-break trips to the bathroom, left whole continents behind me in ruin. I have watched through bored and sleepy eyes as the millions came begging for mercy, and I have, without ever lifting a finger, but only allowing one to descend upon a button of my remote, turned my plump and kingly thumb down.

“Still, what taxpayer today, current or former, could not say the same?”


All of this reminds me of a book I haven’t read, Chris Hodges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Part of a speech he gave in connection with the book reminds me of James Alison’s comments after 9/11, quoted by me many times — so obviously, they give me meaning, shore up my identity …

Hodges says:

“The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it gives us what we all long for in life. It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our news. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.”

My inner cynic sees Etty’s journals as testimony of her struggle to find purpose in living through suffering (first through her physical and emotional suffering, then through a greater, ‘sacred,’ ennobled suffering), to create an identity for herself as a noble and worthy person, one who could radiate peace and compassion to those who were ill-prepared for suffering, to those who found their own excitement and identity in ‘intriguing’ and feverishly forecasting how long the war would last and whether the British would save them.

From Etty’s letters, Dec. 1942: “Perhaps we have faculties other than reason in us, faculties that in the past we didn’t know we had but that possess the ability to grapple with the incomprehensible.” Then in June 1943, as she watches the 35 cattle cars filled with 3,000 Jews taking off for their final destination: “The sky is full of birds, the purple lupins stand up so regally and peacefully, two little old women have sat down on the box for a chat, the sun is shining on my face — and right before our eyes, mass murder. The whole thing is simply beyond comprehension.”

Notes of an Anesthesiobist details Zawadi’s story well. More details at BBC, too, including charities working in the Congo. War Victims Monitor collects these stories of civilian casualties from around the world.

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