Keeping up

I love this insight from Etty Hillesum’s diary in which she reflects: “I must make sure I keep up with my writing, that is, with myself, or else things will start to go wrong for me: I shall run the risk of losing my way.”

There is so much there.

First, writing is a necessity. It is urgent, but in a personal and interior way – less like a worldly deadline and more like a divine summons. 

Recall Rilke’s letter to a young poet: “No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

Next, keeping up with her writing is a means of keeping up with herself. So often in our contemporary culture, the phrase “keeping up with [insert something/someone]” implies comparison to or intrigue about others. But for Etty, her writing is, again, a matter of interiority – perhaps with reference to her own past and future, but not extrinsic to her own soul. 

Lastly, she discovers that writing, this act of keeping up with herself, is a guard against losing her way. What might she mean by this? A thousand things, of course. There is so much depth and reality. Writing is such a quintessentially human activity through which we might weave together gratitude, memory, identity, and wonder. By writing, particularly in the way Etty describes, we provide a sort of spiritual accounting of ourselves. Writing is a special way of living our lives in conspectu Dei – in the sight of God. 

Therefore, from my best historical friend, I learn the immense value of this sort of writing. After all, it would be tragic for persons to file their taxes assiduously while filing away in their hearts nothing of their inner life, to keep track of what is received and owed without reference to the God who gives and takes and away in the most ultimate sense, and to calculate numbers but not to measure depth. 

And God said to me, Write. 
[…] 
He sees through my eyes
in all the ages. 
– Rainer Maria Rilke 

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