One of the most stunning things about Anne Frank’s diary is how indefatigably happy it is. One might expect that her journal, which she kept from 1942 to 1944, as her family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, would be sullen and scared. Here she was, trapped at 13 years old with her parents, sister, another family and a stange older man. She was mature enough to know that any time soldiers could burst in and send them all to the camps.
Yet somehow, page after page, is filled with profound meditations on meaning, friendship, happiness and life. Apparently, this was how she was in the attic on a regular basis as well. One recorded exchange has her chatting with Peter, the 16-year-old Jewish boy also trapped in the attic. Anne explains how she’d like to be a help to him in this difficult time.
Peter: “But you’re always a help to me!”
Peter: “By being cheerful.”
Anne would write in a different entry this heartbreakingly inspiring encapsulation of her philosophy: “Beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you’ll discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who’s happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery.”
The Stoics, like Anne, like every other human no matter how privileged, were not immune to suffering. Exile. Torture. War. Shipwreck. Loss. Illness. Humiliation. These things happen. Not only do they happen, they sometimes happen on the horrific scale of the Holocaust, which wiped millions of promising souls like Anne from the earth.
The question left to those of us still living, or living through our own suffering, is simply: How are we going to respond? Are we going to focus on the beauty that remains? Are we going to be cheerful and courageous and draw those traits out of the people around us? Or are we going to despair? Are we going to let it break us?
We don’t get to choose whether we die, but we do get to choose how we live. We get to control whether we die in misery or not. Anne Frank proves that. Socrates proves that. Seneca proves that.
We can prove that.