Ms Curran holds an MA in Spiritual Direction from
the Weston School of Theology and a Certificate in Spiritual
Direction from the Center for Religious Development (she has
served on its staff).
She offers spiritual direction
in Salem, MA and facilitates a spiritual formation seminar for
lay ministers at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
have come full circle for me tonight in that I was first introduced
to Etty back in the late-eighties, by Sr. Alice Le Ferrier who was
on staff here, and who did a Saturday Book Day on
An Interrupted Life.
Alice was exploring the meaning of suffering, and she had
found Etty to be a rich resource on that topic.
I was moved by Alice’s presentation, bought the book,
read it three consecutive times, and gave it to several friends as
gifts. In my own
formation as a spiritual director, Etty’s writing was the focus of
one seminar in which we all took her on as our theoretical directee.
In time, I ended up co-facilitating that seminar at CRD for a
few years until it closed.
Needless to say, I
have read this book too many times to count, yet with each and every
reading I’ve seen something
new of Etty’s spirit — of her unique affirmations of truth, beauty,
and life’s meaning — which were named and claimed right in the midst
of the systemic deprivation, doom, and destruction of the Nazi
While EH’s Interrupted Life
is not a memoire, per se, it does fit well with the overarching
theme of Illness and Grief in
the Contemporary Memoir in that it is a journal of one young
Jewish woman’s experience and reflection that occurred during a
period which was completely ill and full of grief
What we’ll do tonight
first, hear some background on Etty to provide a context for her
and then, get a sense of the landscape of her inner life and
development by seeing how three attitudes or movements of grace
helped her to cope with the overwhelming amount of loss and
grief, which she had to endure as the ever-tightening noose of
Nazi occupation stripped her of her everyday rights and
ultimately deprived her of her life.
My hope is that you will fall in love with
her, rare person that she is, and that her journey will somehow help
you with your own.
Here goes then.
These words have the
feel of someone about to spring off a high diving board for the
first time, or else put her two skis together and head straight
downhill without poles.
These are the words of a risky and courageous beginning, a digging
in of one’s heels to get lift-off and to move forward.
With these three
brave words, Etty Hillesum starts a search for the essential as she
begins her journal of rigorously honest and nuanced self-reflection.
Later she will describe her journal writing as
a giving of myself to myself,
a yielding to myself that’s more than myself… another kind of love.
But in her initial entry, we meet a conflicted, confused, and
self-absorbed young woman who assesses herself as
accomplished in bed, blessed
enough intellectually to fathom most subjects, to express myself
clearly on most things, and a match for most of life’s problems.
And yet, deep down something like a tightly wound ball of
twine binds me relentlessly, and at times I am nothing more or less
than a miserable, frightened creature, despite the clarity with
which I can express myself (p. 3).
This is the same
young woman whose final journal entry (19 months and 8 notebooks
later) states, We should be
willing to act as a balm for all wounds.
Within that short
time span, something happened to Etty that transformed her from a
neurotic to a mystic.
Esther, or Etty,
Hillesum was born in Holland in 1914.
Her father, Louis, taught classical languages and her mother,
Rebecca, was a Russian, whose Slavic temperament brought a good dose
of dramatic chaos to the home.
Theirs was a tempestuous marriage.
Etty had two brothers. Jaap
became a doctor who distinguished himself by discovering a vitamin,
and Misha became a gifted musician.
He also suffered from psychosis.
Etty received her
undergraduate degree in law, and she was on the faculty of Slavonic
Languages at the University of Amsterdam, where she began to study
psychology. As you can
see, she was a member of a rather gifted and talented family.
Although they were not practicing Jews, the Hillesums lived
in and were part of a Jewish community in Deventer (in East
When we meet Etty at
the start of her journal, it is March 9, 1941, and she is 27.
Holland had been invaded by the Nazis the previous May; Jews
are already being deprived of their jobs, property, and rights.
Etty is living, as she has for the past four years, a rather
bohemian existence in the spacious home of Hans Wegerif, a 62 year
old gentile widower.
She is something of a manager for his household, which includes his
21 year old son Han, a cook named Kathe, and two boarders: Bernard,
a social democrat, and Maria, who is a nurse.
Etty is also the elder
Wegerif’s lover. His
home, which overlooks the main square in Amsterdam, provides an
urban haven for E to live with a congenial circle of friends and to
tutor her students who come there from the university.
One month before her
journal begins, Etty, who was suffering from bouts of depression,
turmoil, and physical distress, sought the therapeutic help of one
Julius Spier, a protégé of Carl Jung who specialized in chirology
(the reading of palm prints).
Spier emerges in her writing as a psychically gifted and compelling
figure, whose experimental therapy includes some eccentric
practices, such as wrestling, stroking, and kissing patients.
Etty is intrigued,
then captivated by Spier; she soon becomes his assistant, his
secretary, his intellectual partner, and eventually, his lover.
Despite their age difference
(Spier being in his 50’s) they discover that they are soul mates,
able to share deeply, to encourage and challenge each other’s inner
growth, and to delight in life’s simple pleasures.
Spier and his group of friends offer Etty a stimulating and
provocative milieu in which she blossoms and thrives.
major catalyst who opens Etty to remarkable psychological and
spiritual growth. She
records that he has uncanny ways of healing people.
He miraculously pulls the puzzle pieces within together and
makes them fit.
trusts and never loses faith in Spier’s integrity and powers to
heal. His personal
practices of meditation and prayer inspire Etty to look to her own
soul and to discover what is hidden there, as the world around them
becomes an increasingly menacing place.
search within never becomes an escapist’s flight from reality, but
rather, as we shall see, it develops into a wide-eyed, conscious
embrace of all that life
In July of 1942, her
brother Jaap, in trying to protect her from being deported, attains
a secretarial position for Etty on the Jewish Council.
After two weeks of “hell” working where she sees Jews helping
Jews to be sent to their deaths, Etty resigns her post, only to
volunteer as a social worker at Westerbork Transit Camp.
Here, Dutch Jews who have been rounded up are processed for
deportation to the various Nazi concentration camps.
chooses not to save herself by going into hiding, but instead to
stand in solidarity with her people who are being systematically
serves the women, teens, and children of the camp from a depth of
compassion – nursing their wounds, listening to their fears,
soothing their souls, and eventually suffering their fate.
In late summer of
’42, Etty’s health breaks down and she returns to Amsterdam for
medical attention and bed rest.
Fortunately, she is at home with Spier when he dies of
natural causes that September.
Since Spier has brought her soul to birth, Etty resolves more
than ever to do the same for others in the camp.
She returns to Westerbork with a deeper sense of purpose to
be there for everyone as the
listening heart of the
barracks until she - along with her family - is transported to
Auschwitz on September 7, 1943.
En route to Poland, she flings a postcard addressed to a
friend from the train.
It reads, We left the camp
singing. On November 30,
1943, a Red Cross report states that Etty Hillesum was put to death
by means of the gas chamber.
Before leaving for
Auschwitz, Etty sent her eight notebooks to a friend whose father
was a writer. This move
was Etty’s only hope for being published.
Writing was her heart’s burning desire, and she acutely felt
a need to bear witness to her place in history.
Forty years went by
before the brother of her friend stumbled upon these abandoned
journals, deciphered the tight scrawl, and immediately took action
to see that they were published.
By the mid-1980’s,
Etty’s writings were widely read and discussed.
Many articles have been written about her life, time, and
consensus is that her unconventional spirituality, based upon
immediate experience of God rather than mediated through a religious
tradition, identifies Etty as a truly modern model of lived
Those are the basic
facts which we know of Etty’s life.
Her journal gives us much more information about what went on
internally than what happened externally.
She has a true gift for
pulling us right into her most personal inner world.
Etty begins with the
intention of looking for meaning, for what is
essential to being fully human — for what is essential for
— even as the world around seeks to destroy her.
She wants to probe, question, examine, and vie with all of
her thoughts and feelings.
As she does so, Etty gradually makes room for
everything to be considered in the light of sheer honesty and
Nothing in her life is to be excluded from consideration and
Soon into her
writing, it becomes apparent that Etty is a highly passionate woman,
who, as she says, is “erotically receptive.”
For her, the body and soul are one.
She fully embraces her embodied existence and allows it to
open her to all of
her experiences and
feelings without muting or numbing any of them.
Some may judge and
discount her as ‘morally messy’ when they read about her abortion
and her firm conviction that she is faithful to two men at once, but
it is important to see that Etty lives outside of the strictures of
a religious moral tradition.
She is not conditioned by many of the shoulds, oughts, and
oughtn’ts that come with most religious formation.
In fact, I believe
that it is precisely her sensual openness toward all of life that
predisposes Etty in such a way that she is probably freer than most
of us are to welcome palpable experiences of God and to bear a
heartfelt compassion for and solidarity with her people, which
become the two hallmarks of her soul.
Etty’s passionate nature definitely comes to inform and
enhance her entire spirituality.
predisposition, which is important to Etty’s spiritual growth, is
her ability to enjoy solitude,
to keep myself to myself for
a while. She is
never happier than the hours she spends alone at her desk (my
true hub) reading, reflecting, and writing.
The authors who feed
Etty’s soul are the likes of Rilke, Dostoevsky, Jung, and St.
Augustine, no spiritual light-weights.
Etty has a native
capacity for real depth, and once she embarks on her adventure
toward wholeness with Spier and her journal, she insures that she
has time for the important, life-giving activities which feed soul
at her beloved desk. It
is in nurturing herself there that an awareness of her inner life
begins to stir and then to awaken.
Here I’d like to
as the first of three essential attitudes or movements of grace
which helped Etty to cope with loss.
Let’s see where awareness takes her.
Etty starts to pay
attention, question, and reflect on what she reads, what she thinks,
the way she thinks, what she feels, what she sees, and what is true.
It is precisely in her capacity to see the truth and to bear
it that Etty awakens to a sense of the sacred, to the Holy Presence
abiding deep within her.
This is something completely new for her.
At first she is
extremely shy about using the name
God or expressing what
happens in times of meditation.
She finds such disclosure far more intimate than writing
about love making. Yet,
as she stays with the daily practice of
turning inward and listening
to her inner voice for a quiet half-hour,
she becomes more attentive to and more directed by what she does
come to call God.
There is a
really deep well inside me.
And in it G dwells.
Sometimes I am there, too.
But more often stones and grit block the well, and G is
buried beneath. Then He
must be dug out again (p. 44).
Attentiveness to a sense of God discovered
within soon motivates Etty to identify and actually dig out those
obstacles which do block the well to God. In other words, awareness
instinctively leads E to a purifying process.
Hesitant at first,
she is able to catch glimpses of new possibilities — of new freedoms
that come with dropping her baggage — and from there she experiments
with those possibilities, notices what happens, and grows.
While there are
elements of adventure in the process of shedding obstacles to God,
Etty finds the actual work of detachment as highly demanding in
terms of attention and effort.
It is no easy task to tease out, face, and release her
romantic fantasies, her illusions, ideals, assumptions, and
attachments. Etty views
this grueling process as a
small war within, where, not only her own personal issues
(vanity, greed, and possessiveness), but also the huge questions of
her time (Why is there such suffering, hatred, and destruction in
the world?) are simultaneously being fought and wrestled to the
see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the
rottenness there. I no
longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we
have first changed ourselves.
And that seems to me to be the only lesson to be learned from
this war. We must look
to ourselves and nowhere else (84).
Growing awareness of
God’s felt-presence within her begins to compel Etty to kneel.
This physical gesture - unfamiliar to Jews and to Etty -
comes to express Etty’s relationship with God.
At first she resists the compulsion and describes herself as
the girl who could not kneel.
Then one day it completely surprises her to find herself
kneeling on a rough coconut mat in the bathroom.
Here she is a self-conscious
Another time, she automatically drops to her knees in the
living room among the bread crumbs, telling God all of her
anxieties. One night,
Etty kneels by her small bed and reflects,
A desire to
kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if
my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling.
Sometimes in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes
an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face.
It has become a gesture embedded in my body, needing to be
expressed from time to time (p.105).
Elsewhere she notes:
Forced to the ground by
something stronger than myself...an intimate act of love that cannot
be put into words… except by a poet (74).
Eventually Etty internalizes this posture when
she learns that she can pray anywhere, anytime by kneeling within
herself and by listening — or
hearkening — to the depths of her soul wherever she may be.
As we can see,
awareness gradually familiarizes Etty with the sacredness of the
holy ground deep within her.
In other words,
her meditation ripens into contemplation.
Etty experiences things in her depths that feel more real
than the ‘reality’ around her.
Awareness of God’s presence there leads Etty to a sense of
being held — of knowing a profound inner safety
— even in the
face of real threat.
I feel like a little bird tucked away in a great protective hand
(195), she writes from
her desk at the Jewish Council after receiving an envelope which she
thought contained her orders to report to the deportation camp.
Let’s look together
at our first selection of Etty’s journal entries.
Notice her realistic
appraisal of what is happening around her, as well as a genuine
sense of deep inner safety that is occurring within her.
Saturday morning, 7:30 … I went to bed
early last night, and from my bed I stared out through the large
open window. And it was
once more as if life with all its mysteries was close to me, as if I
could touch it. I had
the feeling that I was resting against the naked breast of life, and
could feel her gentle and regular heartbeat.
I felt safe and protected.
And I thought, How strange.
It is wartime.
There are concentration camps.
I can say of so many houses I pass: here the son has been
thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an
eighteen-year-old boy in that house over there has been sentenced to
death. And these
streets and houses are so close to my own.
I know how very nervous people are, I know about the mounting
human suffering. I know
the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury
and the terrible sadism.
I know it all.
And yet — at unguarded moments, when left to
myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her
arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat
is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost
muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop (p. 135-136).
While what she calls “reposing in herself” —
or awareness — attunes Etty to her richest resources
within, it holds
tremendous repercussions for what is happening with regard to life
Able to touch and
taste a profound “peace
that the world cannot give” in prayer strengthens Etty over and over
again to cope with all that she must encounter as life disintegrates
around her. She puts it this
way: I allow myself to be
led, not by anything on the outside, but by what wells up from deep
Being led from within
enables Etty to come to terms with and to accept what is happening
from without. I’ll
identify acceptance of
reality — an acceptance which is rooted in faith — as
another attitude which
helps her to deal with loss and grieving.
This second attitude (acceptance of reality) can really be
seen as a progression of the first attitude (awareness), only it is
turned outward and applied to external events.
Etty’s faith, which
undergirds this acceptance, is a far cry from notional, doctrinal,
or creedal beliefs. As
has been mentioned, hers is a faith born and raised in felt
experiences. It begins
when Etty reflects that her best moments occur in times of deep
acceptance of things, people, and events just as they are — and not
as she would have them be (and God knows there is a lot going on
around her that is not as she would want it).
When she experiments with acceptance of
reality, or letting things
reveal their own worth, she notices a feeling of flow — that is,
a life-giving experience of peace, freedom, clarity, and confidence
— all of which enable her to meet reality’s demands.
She describes it as:
A feeling of being at one with all existence.
No longer: I want this or that, but: Life is great
and good and fascinating and eternal, and if you dwell so much on
yourself and flounder and fluff about, you miss the mighty, eternal
current that is life.
It is in these moments – and I am so grateful for
them – that all personal ambition drops away from me, that my thirst
for knowledge and understanding comes to rest, and that a small
piece of eternity descends on me with a sweeping wingbeat.
True, I realize that this mood will not last, that
it will probably be gone within half an hour, but I have
nevertheless been able to draw new strength from it… If only I
listen to my own rhythm and try to live in accordance with it
From here, Etty
discovers that her external life is not composed of random,
accidental events, but rather, it is held — and it unfolds —
significantly, as an organic
destiny. She finds
she is at last mature enough to accept her destiny, to take it upon
herself, to bear it forward, and to let it flourish (131).
That is a terrible, sacred, inner, serious, difficult, and at
the same time inevitable task (133).
I make myself confront
everything which crosses my path (45).
Reality happens, and
reality must be dealt with, requiring her to stay in tune with and
to utilize all of her resources from deep within.
She finds her best stance toward outer reality as one of
receptivity, of a spaciousness that allows room for everything:
for the ebb and flow of
moments of joy, beauty, kindness, delight, and love,
as well as for
moments of sadness, sorrow, struggle, anxiety, and rebellion.
Her desire to live more flowingly–- which grows in and
through her struggles with inner demons — helps her to keep on
moving and not to
cling or get stuck by totalizing any one state – making it
(especially the agony of the Occupation) all there is to life.
Moments pass through her.
She feels them, releases them, and allows them to become part
of the stream. Life
continues, clarity is gained, and her strength is preserved.
In this way, Etty finds she is not dissipated or scattered in
futile fears and sorrows.
Giving real sorrow
its due space and shelter within — and bearing it with courage and
honesty — is what Etty sees as causing the whole world to lessen in
sorrow. On the other hand,
refusing to harbor one’s suffering, and allowing it to turn into
hatred and revenge, pushes it outward and inflicts a multiplication
of sorrows upon the entire earth (97).
To Etty, each must do his/her part by learning to give
authentic suffering a home within, a place where sorrow may become
transformed into peace. She
sees this as an essential work of every human soul.
A major problem with
her people and her age is that of being totally unprepared for or
unschooled in authentic suffering.
A reactive rejection of suffering, mostly through fear,
stunts people’s growth in resiliency, strength, and faith. Faith and
faithfulness become increasingly important to Etty.
As her faith grows, she becomes adamant that no one thing
will ever impede the eternal stream of life felt deep within.
She sees the necessity of faith being a consistently lived
If we are to have any faith
at all, we must have faith all the time (186).
And this means living from
minute-to-minute in the here and now, and to keep moving with the
stream of life.
“The day is sufficient unto itself,” are a mantra, a way of life
to her, especially when she is tempted to give into a million
useless fears that itch like a plague of fleas as the threat of
death draws closer.
burdens the future with one’s worries, it cannot grow organically
As she drops her expectations of the outer
world and places all of her faith in the God whom she experiences
and relates to within, Etty becomes surprisingly contented and
appreciative of life’s gifts (even in the deportation camp): a
geranium in the sunlight, birds on the roof, a smile from a friend
all bring a flood of richness and gratitude to her open heart. She
identifies her contentment as rooted in God, and she holds,
matters to the last
moment is that life has meaning and beauty and we have realized our
potential and lived a good life (163).
Etty’s faith, embedded in her acceptance of
reality, develops into a firm confidence that her inner resources
will never fail her.
Come what may externally, she is convinced that everything will be
all right in the end.
This confidence gives her a clarity and a freedom to live in the
now, the only place where the stream of life is flowing.
We’ll take a look at
the second journal selection to get an idea of what her faith-filled
acceptance of reality looks like vis-a-vis what is happening in the
world around her.
the afternoon … It is possible to suffer with dignity and
without. I mean: 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 each one of our days, and
does it really matter if we live a few more days or less?
I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what
one can call them. I often
see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the
ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine
and with the piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for
everything in a single life.
For belief in God and for a miserable end.
When I say that I have come to terms with life, I don’t mean
I have lost hope… No. It is
a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering
into the bargain. And it is
certainly no small bargain these days… Suffering has always been
with us, does it really matter in what form it comes?
All that matters is how we bear it in our lives…
I know the pale little faces of many, many worried people, I
know it all, everything, every moment, and I sometimes bow my head
under the great burden that weighs down on me, but even as I bow my
head I also feel a need, almost mechanically, to fold my hands.
And so I can sit for hours and know everything and bear
everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it, and at the same
time feel sure that life is beautiful and worth living and
everything. But that doesn’t
mean that I am always filled with joy and exaltation.
I am often dog-tired after standing in queues, but I know
that this too is part of life,
and somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me
again (p. 152-153).
So far we have seen
how Etty’s awareness allows her to discover the precious resource of
God’s presence within and how that carries over to an acceptance
that, by remaining in the now, she can cope with anything life
brings her from without.
Where do such courage, clarity, and confidence bring Etty?
They brings her to the third attitude, a disposition which
grows in, through, out of, and simultaneously with the first two
dispositions, and which helps Etty to cope with grief and loss in a
truly wise and grace-filled way. I’ll
identify that attitude as one of
a love that expresses the way God is with her. Urges to love
generously arise in Etty soon after she begins to kneel.
We hear this desire in her prayer:
Oh Lord, let me feel at one
with myself. Let me
perform a thousand daily tasks with love. But let every one spring
from a great central core of devotion and love (70).
When she is beginning
to listen to her deepest self in prayer, Etty is also coming to
value listening to others so that she can become attuned to them and
find out what they can take in and cope with (102).
In other words, her
sensitivity to the otherness of God brought with it a sensitivity to
the otherness of the people around her.
After Etty makes peace with her destiny as not
including marriage to the man whom she loves with all her heart, she
realizes that her whole being has become one great prayer for him —
and for more than Spier — for all others
as well, she says (165).
Etty reflects on how it is through suffering that she learns
to share love with all creation.
The price of this compassion is high, much blood and tears –
and, she finds, it is
well worth it (147).
strength and love and faith in God that one possesses, and which
have grown so miraculously in me of late, must be there for everyone
who crosses one’s path and who needs it (167).
Her prayer and compassion extend even to the
Gestapo soldiers who suffer, because there are no boundaries between
people who are hurting. (156).
Etty also sees that
she cannot at all afford to hate, despite the rampant injustice all
around, because hating would make her just like the Nazis.
It is the evil in man that needs eradication, not man himself
(86). This distinction
prevents Etty from ever blaming God for what is happening in the
world. The evil in
human hearts, which stems from unresolved pain and ignorance, is
what causes all of the senseless harm in the world.
Humans keep adapting to atrocity, and without their standing
up to protest, the horrors only continue (96).
But God is not
In fact, God who is mighty is quite vulnerable and
powerless to change things.
You cannot help us,
but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the
Etty can hold the
difficult tensions of a deep moral outrage for the regime which
treats humans so cruelly, sheltering God within, and not becoming
I hate nobody.
I am not embittered, and once the love of mankind has
germinated in you, it will grow without measure (180-181).
This is the flowering
of Etty’s soul: it is expressed in her clarity of vision and her
freedom of response. The world outside may be atrociously unjust and
menacing, but Etty is not in any way conditioned or programmed to
react in kind. She does
not have to hate and
thereby increase the world’s woes.
She sees what is going on and makes a clear-sighted, free
response from her deepest self.
Etty chooses to love, despite everything happening around and
to her. They can kill her body, but not her soul.
And that is her resolution, her final answer, to the
questions of both her inner and her outer life: to choose to love
from deep within her soul no matter what happens on the
outside: to accept and to forgive all she encounters, to
eradicate all judgments of fellow humans - including the Nazis, to
help and to serve those who cross her path, to keep her soul
immersed in the stream of life, and, above all, to protect
unto death her human dignity which houses God.
Etty ardently desires
to love every human being, because she sees the God whom she knows,
loves, and desires to help as buried in each person, just as she
discovered God buried within herself. We’ll look at the third
journal entry, which was written from her sickbed in Amsterdam,
shortly after Spier died, when Etty was longing to return to the
I don’t ever want to be what they call ‘safe,’ I
want to be there (Westerbork), I want to fraternize with all my
so-called enemies, I want to understand what is happening and share
my knowledge with as many as I can possibly reach – and I can, if
You will only let me get healthy, O Lord (p. 223)!
[My inner and outer worlds] are equally strong in me.
I so love being with people.
It is as if my own intensity draws what is best and
deepest right out of them; they open up before me, every human being
a new story, told to me by life itself.
And my eyes simply read on joyfully.
Life has confided so many stories to me.
I shall have to retell them to people who cannot
read the book of life itself (p. 226).
As a college student in a large university
setting towards the end of the Vietnam War, I debated and argued and
philosophized about the meaning of life and used Job to explore the
concepts of justice, evil, piety, wisdom and faith vs. reason. I
came up with more questions than answers, among which was, “Why do
innocent people suffer?” It seemed an appropriate and relevant
question at the time, given the devastation that was taking place in
The question of suffering was to take on
even greater relevance in the next few years as I continued my
nursing education and found myself at the bedside caring for men
and women who were suffering. I am not referring here to
expected and short-term discomfort or pain that accompanies
diagnostic procedures and specific therapeutic interventions,
but to that deeper, unnameable pain which stems from such
experiences as fighting an endless and losing battle with
chronic illness or confronting the devastation of traumatic
injury which forever changes the course of one’s life. This is
not pain of a purely physical nature, but has psychic and
spiritual dimensions as well. How often I saw the question
formed in the eyes of those for whom I cared: “Why did this
happen to me?” “What have I done to deserve this?” I had no
answer. Many years later I was to ask these same questions of
myself: at the height of a successful professional career I was
afflicted with a chronic pain condition and subsequently lost my
job and a way of life I had spent a lifetime building. My
relationships changed as did my social life, my family life, and
ultimately, my spiritual life. I suffered.