In pursuit of empathy: thoughts on the Diary of Anne Frank

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the Diary of Anne Frank. I realised afterwards that I had purchased the ‘definitive edition’. This edition wasn’t fitting of the name, since it was edited by Anne’s father, Otto Frank, to remove politically incorrect and offensive diary entries. That would have made for far more interesting reading, but the definitive edition is still a harrowing portrayal of the nebulous emotions experienced by Anne and those with her.

Perhaps conveying the complex emotional state of living in hiding is what Anne’s diary does better that understanding the oppression of Jews. She doesn’t often refer to her Jewish identity, at least not in terms of specifics of the tradition. Anne does however do an excellent job in detailing the flurry of frustrations that come about from living in hiding. Particularly, she gives a great deal of attention to changes to her diet, of how they would eat rotten potatoes for weeks on end, or beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her accounts of not being able to use running water before and after certain times of the day are grim, and related inconveniences to answering the call of nature cause one to appreciate the blessings of peacetime.

Of course, living in such a condition would cause great sadness and grief; very often, she writes how she would break down in tears when nobody was around to see. Other times, her entries are written with a forked tongue, which she herself acknowledges and regrets a few days later. But what’s very interesting, is that in some entries she speaks of being cosy or comfortable. This is most obvious in the latter half of the book, in which her infatuation with Peter is a major theme. But even before then, she does on occasion mention feeling warm in a blanket, or particularly early on, enjoying her food.

This is interesting; it seems that a certain degree of comfort in life is almost a necessary by-product of living. Maybe it could be described as coincidental. Not even the most monastic of men could deny the enjoyment of falling asleep after a tiring day, or food after hunger. For the fasting person, even a humble date seems sensationally delicious. Comfort could then be relative to the degree of hardship that it is experienced after. It is no wonder then that celebrities find no solace in the largest of mansions and the lushest of duvets. If anything, a continual pursuit of increasing comfort is futile, because once one becomes accustomed to a level of comfort, the subsequent comfort that they pursue will be evaluated against it. And with the passage of time, any level of comfort becomes normal, so a continually advancement of comfort is needed for an individual to feel any improvement. It is as the Quran says ‘Competition in worldly increase diverts you, until you visit the graveyards’ (102:1-2); competing to increase in worldly comforts is such a vicious cycle, that is consumes one’s attention until they die.

Returning from the tangent to Anne Frank; the reason that I read this book was to develop empathy. I wanted this to happen in a very specific moment, which I hoped would be at the end of the book. I wanted to see Anne’s diary cut off in a blunt and abrupt fashion. Such is death, blunt and abrupt. I hoped the last diary entry to be completely benign, ideally something to do with what she ate, or something she read. I absolutely did not want it to be some strange foresight about how she secretly knew of her incoming demise. I experienced this moment in part when looking at the contents page, and saw the final date of the diary. I experienced it again when reading the final entry, which was what I hoped it would be. Part of it is about an incisive inflection of Anne’s character. The final paragraph of Anne’s diary is her complaining about her family.

This is utterly poetic. Firstly, imagine the storm of emotion that Anne’s father must have felt when discovering this diary entry. That aside, far more important is how we all allow ephemeral emotion to dictate our interactions with one of God’s greatest blessings, our family, and how we forget the very real possibility of waking up to, or coming home to, our families no longer being there. Or the vice versa.  So the end of the book is perhaps a way for us to better our interactions, hopefully to at least blunt the scorn of our voice, or withhold a sharp tongue. Anne’s diary is a powerful example of the momentous regret that untamed interaction can cause. In the year between her incarceration and death, the regret she must have felt when being separated from all but her sister, is unfathomable.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Muhammad Sakib Ahmad says:

    Very insightful indeed. I remember reading some parts of her diary as a kid and this brings back some memories. I agree with what you say about the comfort – human beings are a weird species… Sometimes I think to myself about how weak we are – e.g. a paper cut can cause the most incredible pain or heart break and loss, and then sometimes you have a major injury e.g. break your arm but it doesn’t hurt as much because you’re not thinking about it.

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  2. Alina says:

    Your analysis on Anne Frank’s last entry to be indicative of what “momentous regret that untamed interaction can cause” is quite incisive. Having read the book in primary school hinders the underlying message of the book which you quite rightly describe is to develop empathy. That being said I quite like your metaphor of “forked tongue”, it is deliciously descriptive.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree – I think reading such a book at a young age arguably undermines it. The emotional weight is eclipsed by the frivolity of a primary school class.

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