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On Becoming Broken Open

Why do we even want to talk about becoming broken open? Because we all experience brokenness in life. That’s simply life. No one wants it. No one asks for it. But it happens. As Elizabeth Lesser says, during challenging times some people can’t handle the difficulty and they break. And some people break open. These are the people we look to as examples, hope-bearers, and light-bearers into our own darkness.

When you are broken open it means you don't shut down, or shut others out. It means you allow yourself to feel the hurt, and to be vulnerable. MOst importantly, it means not being afraid to change, to let your experience lead you to becoming a stronger, more compassionate, more understanding, more giving person.

Many things break us open. Death, divorce, illness, job loss, betrayal, abuse are just a few of the hard things in life that can break us, or break us open. However, "good" things can break us open as well: birth, marriage, kids leaving home. These significant changes are wonderful new beginnings, but also mark endings of the way things used to be. I also believe we can choose to examine our lives, behaviors, and attitudes and choose to deal with our baggage.

It is a spiritual paradox, as the Tao de Ching states, "fragmentation prepares the path to wholeness." Failure, being wronged, exhaustion, fear, and feeling empty all possess within them the opportunity to grow in honesty, integrity, wisdom and light. We don’t have to ask for these situations, they just come, the spiritual question is how will we deal with them.

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen who is a clinical psychologist, told a story about a young man with osteogenic sarcome of the right leg, who was one of the angriest people she ever worked with. He had been a high school and college athlete and until the time of his diagnosis his life had been good. Beautiful women, fast cars, personal recognition. Two weeks after his diagnosis, they had removed his right leg above the knee. While this surgery saved his life, it also ended his life.

He began to drink heavily, to use drugs, to alienate his former admirers and friends and to have one automobile accident after the other. He was filled with rage and a sense of injustice and self-pity when he began sessions with Rachel. In their second session, hoping to encourage him to show his feelings about himself, she asked him to draw a picture of his body. He drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Running through the center of it he drew a deep crack. He went over and over the crack with a black crayon, gritting his teeth and ripping the paper. He had tears in his eyes. They were tears of rage. It seemed to her that the drawing was a powerful statement of his pain and the finality of his loss. It was clear that this broken vase could never hold water, could never function as a vase again.

Over the course of their sessions his anger expanded to include other young lives whose lives had been severely changed because of an accident or illness. He brought in many articles and raged about how the doctors didn’t understand what these people were going through. He felt that no one understood them, no one knew what they were going through, no one was really there for them or really knew how to help them. Rachel asked if he wanted to do something about it and he asked if she thought he could meet some of those who suffered injuries and losses like his. Being in a teaching hospital, Rachel was able to arrange this.

Soon thereafter, he began to come to their sessions with many stories of his visits to these young patients. He found that he could reach them when others couldn’t, and help when no one else could. After a time he began to work with the parents and families to help them better understand what was needed. Even the surgeons began to refer more and more patients to him because they saw how much he helped. Gradually, his anger faded and he developed a sort of ministry.

One of Rachel’s favorite stories was of his visit to a young woman who, at the age of 21, after watching her mother, sister and cousin die of breast cancer, and another sister in chemo for breast cancer, pro-actively had both of her breasts surgically removed.

“He visited her on a hot midsummer day, wearing shorts, his artificial leg in full view. Deeply depressed, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, refusing to look at him. He tried everything he knew to reach her, but without success. He said things to her that only another person with an altered body would dare to say. He made jokes. He even got angry. She did not respond. All the while a radio was softly playing rock music. Frustrated, he finally stood, and in a last effort to get her attention, he unstrapped the harness of his artificial leg and let it drop to the floor with a loud thump. Startled, she opened her eyes and saw him for the first time. Encouraged, he began to hop around the room snapping his fingers in time to the music and laughing out loud. After a moment she burst out laughing too. “Fella,” she said, “if you can dance, maybe I can sing.” She would eventually become his wife.

At his last meeting with Rachel, she showed him the drawing he made of his body two years before. He took it into his hands and looked at it for some time. “You know,” he said, “it’s really not finished.” Surprised, Rachel extended her basket of crayons toward him. Taking a yellow crayon, he began to draw lines radiating from the crack in the vase to the very edges of the paper. Thick yellow lines. He was smiling. Finally he put his finger on the crack, looked at me, and said softly, “This is where the light comes through.”

Being broken open means sitting with the pain instead of denying it or stuffing it. It means seeing what it has to teach us. It’s about softening to life and to others, not hardening. Self-love and self-compassion are crucial components to the process. And living into the new questions one day at a time is essential – Who am I now? What will I do with my life? How will I spend my days?

Breaking open forces us to examine our lives and determind what is truly important. Breaking open offers the opportunity to see past the material world to a new spiritual depth.

I was thinking about some of the old trees in my neighborhood and in the park where we walk. The most beautiful ones are the ones with interesting scars. You know they must have endured lightning or limbs breaking in the wind, but they didn’t die, they just continued to grow around their wounds. And the new growth, as gnarled as it may have been, made the tree beautiful.

We’re the same way. The things that don’t break us, or harden us with cynicism and negativity, instead break us open, and our souls shine forth. Our vulnerability and our softness and our understanding bring light to others going through difficult times. In this mysterious spiritual process our fragments somehow bring us closer to wholeness.

Love & Light!