These words were written on a postcard, thrown out of a train that left Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands on its way to Auschwitz. The woman who wrote this was a Dutch Jew by the name of Etty Hillesum, living in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation. Etty was killed in Auschwitz when she was 29 years old. Long after her death, her war journals were found and published under the title An Interrupted Life. Because of the depth and magnitude of her writings, Etty became known as the Mystic of the Holocaust.
As a Jew who grew up in Amsterdam under the shadow of the Second World War, I have been observing some of the similarities between our times and the times my parents lived through during the 1930’s of Nazi Germany.
The fact that I am only recently experiencing the full intensity of the threat we are facing, is also a function of my privilege as a white heterosexual person, living in Portland. For many people in our country and in our world, there has been ongoing unspeakable suffering, war, genocide, experiences of hate crimes and sexual, physical and emotional assaults. As many people of color have pointed out in response to white people’s current experience of fear: “welcome to my world”. This racism and brutality has always been there. The difference is that it’s more visible and out in the open now.
This is why, more than ever before, I have felt the importance to return to the teachings I received as a young teenager from the writings of this amazing woman, Etty Hillesum.
CONNECTING TO A SOURCE OF JOY
I was 15 years old and living in Amsterdam when Etty’s journals were published. I went to a Jewish school, all of us part of the 2nd generation, children of Holocaust survivors. Our parents had either survived the camps or had resurfaced from their hiding places after the war. Growing up in these surroundings, I knew from a very young age about the horrors of what had happened in the camps. This had a profound impact on me. I often cried myself to sleep at night and prayed to God to take me back because I did not want to live in this world. Etty’s journals showed me a different way. Her words were like a consolation to me from the other world, the world of the dead, showing me that it is possible to find meaning in life even in the most horrific of circumstances.
Because I was only a teenager and I might have questions or emotional reactions, my mother didn’t give me the book but instead read it to me, sitting together in our living room, night after night. After she’d read me a chapter, we’d talk about it together, wondering how this woman, who described in detail the horrors of what they were living through, the daily cruelties, the brutality of the Nazis, the mass deportations was able to stay connected to her heart and spirit. The biggest impact Etty had on me at that time was that she showed me that combating evil is not only an outer process but also an inner one. While everyone around me understandably pointed at the Nazis as the evil monsters, Etty pointed at an inner journey:
“I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.”
Ever since that day, I have considered Etty my first spiritual teacher. What made her writings so deeply inspiring, was that while she was fully aware that she and all the other Jews were facing total annihilation, she was able to connect to an inner source that allowed her to transcend her circumstances and continue to spread love. In her own words:
“We should not foster the hate in us, because it will not help the world to rise above the mud. One thing is for sure; one needs to help extend the supply of love on this planet earth. Every little bit of hate that one adds to the already existing overload of hate, will make this world more desolate and more uninhabitable. And of love I have much, very much, so much that it really adds weight and is not small any longer. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me.”
Now, more than ever, her words resonate with me. Not because of the circumstances, which are of course not the same. As much as there are similarities between our current climate and Germany in the 1930s, by quoting Etty I am not suggesting we are headed towards the same destiny as she was. But what her words help me to remember is that even in the most horrific of circumstances, there is this possibility: of connecting to an inner source of strength, inspiration and even joy that isn’t based on or derived from the world around us.
WE CANNOT FIGHT TOXICITY BY BECOMING TOXIC
Like all of us, over the past few weeks, I have grappled with a myriad of different reactions. I have felt in shock, enraged, terrified, hopeless and overcome with grief. I have cried for the Muslim women who are getting attacked for wearing a scarf, for the people with serious illnesses who might lose their health care, for the young teenage girl who wants to have an IUD placed because she is scared that if she gets raped the government might force her to keep the baby, for the millions of immigrants and their children who are terrified of being deported, for the gay and transgender people who might lose the few rights that have only been gained through the sacrifice and unbelievable suffering and death of so many, for the African American woman who got a brick thrown at her right here in Portland just because of the color of her skin, for the Native American people who after having lived through a genocide continue to face unbelievable military brutality and ongoing hardship during this administration, let alone in the administration to come and for our beautiful planet that is facing destruction at our own hands.
Like so many other people, I have struggled with some of the right-wing members in my own family, who in my case are all Jewish. For me, the big lesson of the Holocaust was that “never again” does not just apply to Jews but to ALL oppressed people. I have always felt that as a human being and as a Jew who knows what racial prejudice and hatred for ‘others’ who are different than you can ultimately lead to, I want to stand for justice for all. The fact that some of my family members were jubilant at the same time that Neo Nazis were also celebrating was a massive betrayal. The rage and grief I felt were so huge that it made me feel vicious. I wanted to lash out, demean them, ridicule them and cut them off from my life once and for all.
This is when I realized:
I cannot fight toxicity by becoming toxic myself.
If I allow myself to be poisoned by the very thing I am battling, I inadvertently become the very poison I am so passionately against. I become the one who refuses to dialogue and engage with people who hold vastly different viewpoints from mine. I become the person who wants to throw an entire group of people on the same heap, labeled ‘traitors’. When I realized this, I decided to reach out to them and engage in a more constructive dialogue about our deepest values and the deeper feelings underneath our conflict. In Etty’s words: I chose to “not foster the hate inside me” but to speak instead from the truth of my heart. With some, this has had no or little effect, for others it was a wake up call and it brought us closer.
THE ULTIMATE ZEN KOAN
Although Etty’s life was cut short, her spirit lives on. In meditating on her words and her message, I began to see that the circumstances we find ourselves in today present us with a kind of Zen Koan. A Zen Koan is term that comes from Zen Buddhism. It’s a kind of paradoxical riddle or puzzle that cannot be solved by the intellect but instead can lead to an intuitive realization about life and truth. I see the Zen Koan of our circumstances as follows:
It’s almost impossible to feel joy in the midst of so much fear and anguish and uncertainty about the potential injustices that face us all.
Yet at the same time, because this is what we are facing, finding a source of joy and inspiration is exactly what we need in order to sustain ourselves and not be taken over by what we are going through.
This is Etty’s message. That it is not only possible to connect to an inner source of joy even when it seems totally impossible but that these are the wings that can carry us even while we are in the midst of so much anguish, fear and uncertainty.
Yes, we need to be activists and fight for what we know is right and stand against injustice in all the forms we will be called to do so, whether it’s making phone calls, writing letters and emails, signing petitions, voting, participating in protests, making art, defending people who are being verbally or physically attacked, standing in solidarity with groups who are being targeted and so forth. And let’s find a way where we can do just that, without becoming the very thing we are standing against or getting depleted and exhausted in the process.
THE POWER OF EROS IN THE FACE OF DEATH AND GRIEF
“And those who were seen dancing
were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Even on this soil, not long ago, there were times where love was infected with fear. During the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, when so many gay people died terrible deaths, lost lovers and partners and friends and suffered through gruesome illnesses and brutal injustice, the Reagan administration blocked governmental action during the critical early period, thereby amplifying the damage of the epidemic.
“We must commit to defending our friends, neighbors, and coworkers who are immigrants (documented or not), Muslims (American born, immigrants, or refugees), people of color, women seeking reproductive health care, trans men and women seeking safety, lesbian and gay men seeking to protect their families, and everyone and everything else Trump has threatened to harm, up to and including the planet we all live on.
But we must make time for joy and pleasure and laughter and friends and food and art and music and sex. During the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when Republicans and religious conservatives controlled the federal government and were doing everything in their power to harm the sick and dying, queers organized and protested and volunteered and mourned. We also made music and theater and art. We took care of each other, and we danced and loved and fucked. Embracing joy and art and sex in the face of fear and uncertainty made us feel better—it kept us sane.”
What is so deeply moving for me, as a heterosexual person and outsider is the incredible courage, resilience and big heartedness it must have taken to continue to love and find joy while people were dying in the most atrocious ways and being treated as pariahs and being shamed by their own families. Thank you Dan Savage, for your powerful words and for showing us how even then, eros can be an antidote to fear and destruction.
THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF EROS
More than ever, now is when we need the Alchemy of Eros: the transformative power of the erotic, of ecstasy and creativity and writing and dancing and crying and loving.
Instead of polarizing against our inner experiences and marginalize our fear and grief and anguish, the “attitude of Eros” is one of embracing it all, including our feelings of rage and fear and anger as well as loss and sadness.
Instead of getting stuck in one place, let’s give ourselves and each other the spaciousness to let all those feelings move through us.
Vulnerability isn’t our enemy. It’s a place from which great wisdom, compassion and true power can arise.
This is the time to nurture our bodies, to deepen our relationships, to look in each other’s eyes and really see the other person and allow ourselves to be seen. To embrace and talk and touch and express our feelings for each other without holding back. To meditate and pray and be in each other’s presence, with or without words. To work on resolving our own inner and outer conflicts and grow our connections with each other.
Because we cannot do it alone.
We need each other, now more than ever.
This is the time to live from the place of Eros: to be in awe of the color of an autumn leaf, to experience the stillness of a forest, to listen to waves crashing on the shore and retreating back into the sea, over and over again and to take comfort in the sounds of this eternal movement.
This is the time to listen to our Muse and make art and write and paint and draw and make music and dance and express everything we are experiencing in the most creative ways possible.
And yes, now is exactly when we need to love each other with all of our hearts, to find pleasure in our bodies, to make love and have sex in all the wild, tender, sweet, powerful, transcendent, cathartic, intimate, soft, intense, passionate ways that turn us on.
Attribution: Photo Via: Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
List of national organisations
Here is a list of organisations you can connect with either to give your support or to reach out to for support. We want to thank our colleague Santiago Delboy from Chicago (firstname.lastname@example.org) for compiling and sharing this list with us: national-organizations-to-support