What Anne Frank’s Diary Can Teach Us about Living in the Eye of a Storm – and Finding Our True Self

This holiday season, we can learn so much about our own selves from the diary of a thirteen-year-old, not simply from the suffering she bore but the happiness she cultivated, not simply from her outer chaos but her inner clarity, and not simply from her tempestuous relationships but her tranquil heart.
Note: Anne Frank was thirteen when she and her family were forced into hiding in 1942 in a Secret Annex of a building in Amsterdam to escape the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany. She lived in that confined space with her parents, sister, and four other people for two years, writing about her experiences and reflections in her diary, before the residents were finally found and arrested. Anne Frank’s Diary was published after the end of World War II and continues to receive international acclaim.

What would you do if you were forced into lockdown in a small living space, with people you didn’t always get along with, for month upon month, as the world outside seemed to careen out of control? This year, my mind often drifted to Anne Frank and her tumultuous years in the Secret Annex. I wondered what we might learn from her journey given the disruptions our lives have experienced; after all, her conditions were much worse, and she was only thirteen. So finally, over the holidays, I picked up and read Anne Frank’s Diary, and emerged shaken and stirred in ways much deeper than I had anticipated.

There is a lively, endearing, human side to Anne that struggles not just with a stormy outer world but also a stormy inner world. She has just turned into a teenager, is finding her own voice and being rebellious. This is an Anne we can all relate to. But there is also the spiritual, soaring, heroic side to Anne that reflects, loves, learns, thrives and grows. She cultivates a pure heart, envisions her future impact on the world, and finds her true self lying deep within. This is an Anne we can all be inspired by.

In the first several months of her hiding, Anne struggles with anxiety, depression and fear.

I’ve been taking valerian every day to fight the anxiety and depression, but it doesn’t stop me from being even more miserable the next day…Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth is going to permanently droop at the corners…My nerves often get the better of me, especially on Sundays; that’s when I really feel miserable.
The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish, leaden. Outside, you don’t hear a single bird, and a deathly, oppressive silence hangs over the house and clings to me as if it were going to drag me into the deepest regions of the underworld. At times like these, Father, Mother and Margot [Anne’s sister] don’t matter to me in the least. I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. “Let me out, where there’s fresh air and laughter!” a voice within me cries. I don’t even bother to reply anymore, but lie down on the divan. Sleep makes the silence and the terrible fear go by more quickly, helps pass the time, since it’s impossible to kill it.

But in the midst of the tumult, she strives to gain dominion over her emotional life.

The Annex is an ideal place to hide in. It may be damp and lopsided, but there’s probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam.  
We just had a third air raid. I decided to grit my teeth and practice being courageous.
Last night I went downstairs in the dark, all by myself, after having been there with Father a few nights before. I stood at the top of the stairs while German planes flew back and forth, and I knew I was on my own, that I couldn’t count on others for support. My fear vanished. I looked up at the sky and trusted in God.

Her small steps toward inner mastery, over time, become big leaps, and near the end of her two years in hiding, she observes with some satisfaction the progress she has made.

I face life with an extraordinary amount of courage. I feel so strong and capable of bearing burdens, so young and free! When I first realized this, I was glad, because it means I can more easily withstand the blows life has in store… I’ve often been down in the dumps, but never desperate. I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary.

Anne brings a remarkable capacity to commune with nature.

It’s not just my imagination—looking at the sky, the clouds, the moon and the stars really does make me feel calm and hopeful. It’s much better medicine than valerian or bromide. Nature makes me feel humble and ready to face every blow with courage…The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.
But I also looked out the open window, letting my eyes roam over a large part of Amsterdam, over the rooftops and on to the horizon, a strip of blue so pale it was almost invisible. “As long as this exists,” I thought, “this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?” The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity. As long as this exists, and that should be forever, I know that there will be solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer.

How often in recent days have you and I looked up at the starlit sky with childlike wonder? How can we deepen our attunement with nature so it makes us ready to face every blow with courage and brings us solace for every sorrow?

And she finds opportunities to be grateful.

It’s amazing how much these generous and unselfish people do, risking their own lives to help and save others. The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they’ll find themselves sharing the fate of those they’re trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we’re too much trouble…That’s something we should never forget; while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.

How rooted are you and I in a practice of gratitude, in scanning for actors in our community who are playing their role beautifully in the drama of our times?

She resists her mother’s guidance to forge her own pathway to happiness.

 

At such moments I don’t think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: “Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you’re not part of it.” My advice is: “Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy.” I don’t think Mother’s advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you 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!

What an important lesson for every parent among us, to not assume our children, just because they look and act as children, are bereft of innate wisdom in resolving life’s greatest challenges.

Anne struggles with some of her relationships in the Annex. Her greatest test is her own mother, who she finds critical and hurtful.

 

Mama always treats me like a baby, which I can’t stand.  
Mama gave me another one of her dreadful sermons this morning. We take the opposite view of everything.
What do we know of each other’s thoughts? I can’t talk to her, I can’t look lovingly into those cold eyes, I can’t. Not ever! — If she had even one quality an understanding mother is supposed to have, gentleness or friendliness or patience or something, I’d keep trying to get closer to her. But as for loving this insensitive person, this mocking creature—it’s becoming more and more impossible every day!

And then there are the van Daans, who join her family in hiding. Initially, she’s happy with the prospects of having this family join them.

 

I’m looking forward to the arrival of the van Daans, which is set for Tuesday. It will be much more fun and also not as quiet.

But her joy is short-lived, for she is soon entangled in the timeless human drama of clashing temperaments. In the passages below, we also get a window into Anne’s spunk.

 

Mr. van Daan and I are always at loggerheads with each other…Some people, like the van Daans, seem to take special delight not only in raising their own children but in helping others raise theirs. Margot doesn’t need it, since she’s naturally good, kind and clever, perfection itself, but I seem to have enough mischief for the two of us. More than once the air has been filled with the van Daans’ admonitions and my saucy replies.
Mrs. van Daan is unbearable. I’m continually being scolded for my incessant chatter when I’m upstairs. I simply let the words bounce right off me!...I’d just finished writing something about Mrs. van Daan when she walked into the room. Thump, I slammed the book shut. “Hey, Anne, can’t I even take a peek?” “No, Mrs. van Daan.” “Just the last page then?” “No, not even the last page, Mrs. van Daan.” Of course, I nearly died, since that particular page contained a rather unflattering description of her.
If I take a small helping of a vegetable I loathe and eat potatoes instead, the van Daans, especially Mrs. van Daan, can’t get over how spoiled I am. “Come on, Anne, eat some more vegetables,” she says. “No, thank you, ma’am,” I reply. “The potatoes are more than enough.” “Vegetables are good for you; your mother says so too. Have some more,” she insists, until Father intervenes and upholds my right to refuse a dish I don’t like. Then Mrs. van D. really flies off the handle: “You should have been at our house, where children were brought up the way they should be. I don’t call this a proper upbringing. Anne is terribly spoiled. I’d never allow that. If Anne were my daughter…” This is always how her tirades begin and end: “If Anne were my daughter…” Thank goodness I’m not. But to get back to the subject of raising children, yesterday a silence fell after Mrs. van D. finished her little speech. Father then replied, “I think Anne is very well brought up. At least she’s learned not to respond to your interminable sermons. As far as the vegetables are concerned, all I have to say is look who’s calling the kettle black.” Mrs. van D. was soundly defeated. The pot calling the kettle black refers of course to Madame herself, since she can’t tolerate beans or any kind of cabbage in the evening because they give her “gas.” But I could say the same. What a dope, don’t you think? In any case, let’s hope she stops talking about me. It’s so funny to see how quickly Mrs. van Daan flushes. I don’t, and it secretly annoys her no end.
I’ve learned one thing: you only really get to know a person after a fight. Only then can you judge their true character!

Over time, she develops more acceptance and patience in her attitude toward her mother.

 

This morning, when I had nothing to do, I leafed through the pages of my diary and came across so many letters dealing with the subject of “Mother” in such strong terms that I was shocked. I said to myself, “Anne, is that really you talking about hate? Oh, Anne, how could you?” I continued to sit with the open book in my hand and wonder why I was filled with so much anger and hate that I had to confide it all to you. I tried to understand the Anne of last year and make apologies for her, because as long as I leave you with these accusations and don’t attempt to explain what prompted them, my conscience won’t be clear.
Those violent outbursts on paper are simply expressions of anger that, in normal life, I could have worked off by locking myself in my room and stamping my foot a few times or calling Mother names behind her back… I soothe my conscience with the thought that it’s better for unkind words to be down on paper than for Mother to have to carry them around in her heart…The period of tearfully passing judgment on Mother is over. I’ve grown wiser and Mother’s nerves are a bit steadier. Most of the time I manage to hold my tongue when I’m annoyed, and she does too.

In our dynamics with our loved ones, are you and I ready to leave the “me of last year” behind in a lifelong march toward creating more fulfillment in our relationships?

Anne starts to see things in a more self-critical light with regard to the van Daans.

 

You’ll be amazed when I tell you that even my attitude toward the van Daans has changed. I’ve stopped looking at all the discussions and arguments from my family’s biased point of view…I want to take a fresh look at things and form my own opinion, not just ape my parents, as in the proverb “The apple never falls far from the tree.” I want to reexamine the van Daans and decide for myself what’s true and what’s been blown out of proportion. Up to now I was absolutely convinced that the van Daans were entirely to blame for the quarrels, but now I’m sure the fault was largely ours. We were right as far as the issues were concerned, but intelligent people (such as ourselves!) should have more insight into how to deal with others. I hope I’ve got at least a touch of that insight, and that I’ll find an occasion to put it to good use.

In our relationships, do we focus primarily on being right as far as the issues are concerned, or do we also strive to understand how best to deal with others?

Like us all, Anne wishes to become her ideal self, but is plagued by doubts and relapses.

 

I know I’m far from being what I should; will I ever be?
I had an occasional flash of understanding, but then got selfishly wrapped up again in my own problems and pleasures.

And yet, in those two years, she advances in her quest for self-improvement in no small measure.

 

When I think back to my life in 1942, it all seems so unreal. The Anne Frank who enjoyed that heavenly existence was completely different from the one who has grown wise within these walls. Yes, it was heavenly. Five admirers on every street corner, twenty or so friends, the favorite of most of my teachers, spoiled rotten by Father and Mother, bags full of candy and a big allowance. What more could anyone ask for? Would all that admiration eventually have made me overconfident? It’s a good thing that, at the height of my glory, I was suddenly plunged into reality. It took me more than a year to get used to doing without admiration.  
I look back at that Anne Frank as a pleasant, amusing, but superficial girl, who has nothing to do with me. What’s remained of that Anne Frank? Oh, I haven’t forgotten how to laugh or toss off a remark, I’m just as good, if not better, at raking people over the coals, and I can still flirt and be amusing, if I want to be… But there’s the catch. I’d like to live that seemingly carefree and happy life for an evening, a few days, a week. At the end of that week I’d be exhausted, and would be grateful to the first person to talk to me about something meaningful. People who respect me for my character and my deeds, not my flattering smile. The circle around me would be much smaller, but what does that matter, as long as they’re sincere?
Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is! With all that, why should I despair?
Wishes, thoughts, accusations and reproaches are swirling around in my head. I’m not really as conceited as many people think; I know my various faults and shortcomings better than anyone else, but there’s one difference: I also know that I want to change, will change and already have changed greatly.

In reflecting on the war, Anne indicts not simply the leaders, but the broader public who follow their darkest impulses.

 

I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!

She takes a searching look at humanity’s soul, and therein finds beauty and grace.

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. 
Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness. If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn't necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold onto my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!
I've found that there is always some beauty left -- in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.

All of us are born with a basic goodness…people are truly good at heart. How can Anne, in the midst of World War II, with all the mayhem it brought especially to the Jewish community to which she belonged, maintain this ennobling view of human nature? What might we gain if we expand our heart in the same way? 

Of course, many people were not behaving in noble ways in her time, and Anne is not blind to that. But she still sees the untapped potential in people to grow and reform themselves.

People who are religious should be glad, since not everyone is blessed with the ability to believe in a higher order...Not the fear of God, but upholding your own sense of honor and obeying your own conscience…Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands…I’m beginning to realize the truth of Father’s adage: “Every child has to raise itself.” Parents can only advise their children or point them in the right direction. Ultimately, people shape their own characters. 
How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal. Everyone is welcome to this prescription; it costs nothing and is definitely useful. Those who don’t know will have to find out by experience that “a quiet conscience gives you strength!”  

In a world exploding with complexity, when we feel overcommitted and have no time on our hands, Anne has offered us such a simple model to develop our character: Review your behavior at the end of each day and weigh up the rights and wrongs. Then you will automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, will accomplish a great deal. An army of behavioral scientists in modern times would applaud her for this insight into the psychology of personal growth.

While Anne zestfully plays the role of the protagonist on the stage of her life, she is also increasingly stepping on the balcony to observe, critique and direct herself. She is, as Yogananda would have described it, “in the world, but not of the world.”

 

It’s funny, but I can sometimes see myself as others see me. I take a leisurely look at the person called “Anne Frank” and browse through the pages of her life as though she were a stranger…I have one outstanding character trait that must be obvious to anyone who’s known me for any length of time: I have a great deal of self-knowledge. In everything I do, I can watch myself as if I were a stranger. I can stand across from the everyday Anne and, without being biased or making excuses, watch what she’s doing, both the good and the bad. This self-awareness never leaves me, and every time I open my mouth, I think, “You should have said that differently” or “That’s fine the way it is.” I condemn myself in so many ways.  

How often do you and I step above the fray to coach ourselves from a place of calm, dispassionate observation? Would we become better at taming those impulses that get us in trouble if we build this self-regulating mechanism within our mind?

She develops an understanding of the inner source of happiness.

 

I don’t have much in the way of money or worldly possessions, I’m not beautiful, intelligent or clever, but I’m happy, and I intend to stay that way! I was born happy, I love people, I have a trusting nature, and I’d like everyone else to be happy too…Riches can all be lost, but that happiness in your own heart can only be veiled, and it will still bring you happiness again, as long as you live. As long as you can look fearlessly up into the heavens, as long as you know that you are pure within, and that you will still find happiness.  

Are you and I clear about the relative role money, worldly possessions, beauty, intelligence, fearlessness and purity are playing in creating lasting happiness in our lives?

She wishes to bring the same understanding to others – not of what treasures await them on the outside, but of what treasures await them on the inside. To Peter, the son of the van Daans, she counsels:

 

We’ve been missing out on so much here, so very much, and for such a long time. I miss it just as much as you do. I’m not talking about external things, since we’re well provided for in that sense; I mean the internal things. Like you, I long for freedom and fresh air, but I think we’ve been amply compensated for their loss. On the inside, I mean. This morning, when I was sitting in front of the window and taking a long, deep look outside at God and nature, I was happy, just plain happy.  
Peter, as long as people feel that kind of happiness within themselves, the joy of nature, health and much more besides, they’ll always be able to recapture that happiness. Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again.
Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more.

When was the last time you and I looked fearlessly at the sky to know that we are pure within?

Her two years in the Annex lead to much self-discovery. The more she writes, the more clarity she seems to gain on what her outer purpose is meant to be.

 

When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?
And if I don't have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that…I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself to!...I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!

How deep are the inner dives you and I do to tease out the intuitive wisdom at our core about what we are meant to manifest in the world?

And then there is her inner purpose. In her last diary entry on August 1 1944, Anne gives us a powerful glimpse into her growing quest for Self-realization.

 

What does “contradiction” mean? Like so many words, it can be interpreted in two ways: a contradiction imposed from without and one imposed from within. The former means not accepting other people’s opinions, always knowing best, having the last word; in short, all those unpleasant traits for which I’m known. The latter, for which I’m not known, is my own secret.
As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things…This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer.
I’m afraid that people who know me as I usually am will discover I have another side, a better and finer side. I’m afraid they’ll mock me, think I’m ridiculous and sentimental and not take me seriously. I’m used to not being taken seriously, but only the “lighthearted” Anne is used to it and can put up with it; the “deeper” Anne is too weak. If I force the good Anne into the spotlight for even fifteen minutes, she shuts up like a clam the moment she’s called upon to speak, and lets Anne number one do the talking.
So the nice Anne is never seen in company. She’s never made a single appearance, though she almost always takes the stage when I’m alone. I know exactly how I’d like to be, how I am…on the inside. But unfortunately, I’m only like that with myself. And perhaps that’s why—no, I’m sure that’s the reason why—I think of myself as happy on the inside and other people think I’m happy on the outside. I’m guided by the pure Anne within, but on the outside I’m nothing but a frolicsome little goat tugging at its tether.

What a beautiful entry! What a limited view we would have of Anne, and of anybody, if all we did was interact with and judge them for their outer persona.

How much have you and I explored our core…our purer, deeper and finer side…the one that takes the stage when we are alone…the one that is happy on the inside?

Three days after this final passage, a car pulled up at the building with the Secret Annex. The Gestapo found and arrested Anne and her fellow residents. Anne, her sister and mother died in concentration camps over the next few months, along with the van Daans, just as the Allied forces had begun to liberate Europe. Anne’s father survived, returned to Amsterdam, found her diary and arranged for its publication.

If you have read this article to this point, then I know, dear Reader, that you will join me in sending this thought to her. Anne, thank you for your life, for your struggles, strivings and growth, and most of all for the purity you preserved deep down within. We want you to know that you have, just as you wished, been useful and brought enjoyment to all people, even those you never met. You have gone on to live even after your death.

Anne’s greatest gift to future generations may be to show us, through her own journey, what each of us is capable of. She once wrote, “Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”  

Who would have thought that in the twilight hours of this tumultuous year, a thirteen-year-old girl from 1940’s Amsterdam would leap out of her diary straight into our hearts, showing, through her 25-month sojourn in a Secret Annex, how much purpose, wisdom, love, growth and self-realization we can all nurture even in the midst of our pandemic lives?