What Anne Frank’s Diary Can Teach Us about Living in the Eye of a Storm – and Finding Our True Self (Part 1)

What Anne Frank’s Diary Can Teach Us about Living in the Eye of a Storm – and Finding Our True Self (Part 1)

Photo: Marcos Paulo Prado

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.

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.

brown wooden ladder on brown wooden wall
Photo: Dmitry Antropov

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

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

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.

macro shot photography of white flowers
Photo: Karsten Würth

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.

“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. 

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…

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?

Photo: Denny Müller

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.”

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.

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.

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 want to change, will change and already have changed greatly.

white flowers at the tree
Photo: Benjamin Balázs

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. 

 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? 


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.

(Editor’s Note: This article is condensed from a piece on Professor Wadhwa’s site.  To read to full version click here)

Hitendra Wadhwa is Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School and Founder of the Mentora Institute, Hitendra has coached dozens of Fortune 100 C-suite executives and taught 10,000+ MBAs and Executives. His class on Personal Leadership & Success is one of the most popular at Columbia Business School, for which he has won the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Hitendra’s mission is to discover, codify and teach the laws of success in life and leadership. His research integrates the latest science of human nature, ancient wisdom, studies of great leaders, and the personal journeys of everyday heroes. Hitendra brings a mathematician’s rigor and a truth-seeker’s spirit to some of today’s most vexing questions about authenticity, success, leadership, human potential, and more.

Hitendra is the founder of Mentora Institute, which is at the forefront of creating a new model of leadership for the 21st century that is agile, authentic, and attainable, where executives achieve ever-growing Outer Impact through ever-deepening Inner Mastery.

Check back here on Saturday for the conclusion of Professor Wadhwa’s piece.