Change and uncertainty come as a pair. Graduating seniors experience this in a distinct way when they begin life as alumni. Changes in academic seasons, in walks of life, and in the geopolitical climate all cause us to notice the ground shifting beneath our feet, and can make us feel off-balance. Such changes present an invitation to reflect upon the way we respond to uncertainty.
Many thinkers in the 20th century grappled with the pain that can be caused by uncertainty. While Martin Heidegger’s account of Angst is perhaps the most well-known of these accounts, I would like to turn instead to the lesser-known figure of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman writing during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her journals and letters offer a window into the mind of a thoughtful observer of one of the most anxiety-inducing chapters of history.
As a victim of the Holocaust, Etty lived and died in an era defined by global conflict and epic-scale struggles between life and death, and good and evil. In her journal, she describes a “ridiculous unease” that fills her each day but cannot be pinned down to a single source. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she often finds it difficult to perform simple daily activities like exercising, praying, working, and navigating personal relationships. Certainly, no one would fault her for lapsing into despair, and yet she did not do so.
Etty did not serve on the front lines of war or perform any great act of heroism. Yet, her honest words manifest a quotidian courage that is deeply admirable and worthy of imitation. As she continues to perform her daily duties, she makes a simple and beautiful prayer: “Lord, help me not to waste a drop of my energy on fear and anxiety, but grant me all the resilience I need to bear this day.”
Contemporary culture is subtly saturated with an existentialist urge to treat the depths of uncertainty as a foe to confront all at once. Etty’s writings show us another response. Her poignant reflections show how uncertainty—even that which is caused by world-shaking conflict—can often only be navigated by humbly and courageously dedicating oneself to small daily tasks, and by praying for the strength and resilience we need to do so when we find our balance shaken by change.