My mom recently shared the story of a young Jewish woman with me, of the name Etty Hillesum. She read about her in the book "Interior Freedom," by Fr. Jacques Philippe.
This young Jewish woman lived in the Netherlands during the Nazi persecution in early 1940's.
Before Etty discovered the path to interior peace, she lived what would be considered a typical teenager's lifestyle. She had many boyfriends, was emotionally unstable, attached to worldly things, and was essentially living a life free of any "restrictive" moral principles.
However, Etty was stubborn. She was determined to discover the truth of her humanity, and to find the recipe for happiness. Through her friend, a Jewish psychologist, Etty discovered the key aspects of Christianity and ultimately, happiness:
Awareness of God's presence within oneself
The invitation to abandonment in firm trust of Divine Providence
Love of neighbor over self
Acceptance and offering up of suffering
Both eyewitnesses and her diary, which was published in 1981, affirm her commitment to these values after discovering their power.
She wrote in her diary a beautiful excerpt, which speaks volumes about the state of her soul.
"This morning I cycled along the Station Quay enjoying the broad sweep of the sky...breathing in fresh, unrationed air. And everywhere signs barring Jews from paths and the open country. But above the one narrow path still left to us stretches the sky, still intact. They can't do anything to us, they really can't. They can harass us, they can rob us of our material goods, of our freedom of movement, but we ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our misguided compliance. By our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated, oppressed. By our own hatred. By our swagger, which hides our fear... Our greatest injury is one we inflict upon ourselves. I find life beautiful, and I feel free...I believe in God and I believe in man, and I say so without embarrassment. Life is hard, but that is no bad thing...It is not morbid individualism to work one oneself. True peace will only come when every individual finds peace within himself...I am a happy person and I hold life dear indeed, in this year of Our Lord 1942, the umpteenth year of the war. "
Etty found happiness.
She cultivated peace in her soul, even amidst a more difficult life than many of us will ever experience. She is an excellent example for our world, especially for Gen Z.
As young people, it can be incredibly discouraging to live in this world. Most of us have lost friends to suicide, we don't have to work for a life of comfort, and word on the street has it that morals will restrict our freedom.
Etty lived in a world where her life was truly oppressed, where she had objectively little reason for joy or hope. So she tried out the things we have. She attempted to fill the void with shallow, worldly things the same way our generation often does- through casual sex, material addictions and complete lack of principles. Etty saw the darkness a life such as that produces, and she had the craving to discover her true purpose; to find what really makes us humans happy.
Before she was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1943, as she had anticipated, she lived a life with such joy and peace- that all those who knew her were inspired by her mastery of interior freedom.
If Etty Hillesum could be happy, so can you.
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