When a bone breaks and heals, the newly grown bone material at the fracture is stronger than the intact bone around the break. If the bone breaks again, it won’t be there.
So, too, our character is strengthened by the painful stresses and factures that life so readily affords. The healed places become our strong points.
Seen in this light, the disappointments, failures, and miseries of our lives become irreplaceable, essential experiences. Without them we would be incapable of rising to our magnificent potential, fulfilling our larger purpose and realizing our deepest happiness. Nothing strengthens our core as much as heartbreak.
Armed with this information, a reassessment is in order. It’s time to look at our lives differently. Fear, it turns out, is not our friend.
Avoiding risk, playing it safe, carefully hiding from challenges, and seeking comfort are the worst things you can do. Instead, identify the things you are afraid of and run toward them.
This is why growing older is so often associated with growing wiser. As you grow older life’s miseries inevitably visit you with increasing frequency. Loved ones die. Goals go unrealized. Things fall apart. And as these trials are endured, a dawning realization arises. Despite all of the tears, you’re going to be okay. Beneath the suffering of the surface lays a deep and abiding harmony. Every spring in the forest, without fail, the flowers bloom and deer give birth to fawns. As Woody Allen said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”
As our hair falls out, our skin begins to sag, our hearing fades, and stairs get inexplicably steeper, there is a simultaneous expansion of our generosity of spirit – we no longer insist on seeing everything through the lens of “what’s in it for me.” We come to learn that none of us owns any of this; it’s all borrowed and we grow defter at releasing our grasp and graciously accepting the transitory nature of all things. In this renunciation there is a deep and abiding joy – a joy reached no other way but through the acceptance of loss and the catharsis of tears.
As I write, my old dog Boone sleeps at my feet beneath the desk. He’s a handsome 14-year-old Brittany spaniel. Most of his hearing is gone, he falls down all the time, and the light is slowly fading from his eyes. I know that day is coming soon when I’ll lift him into the back seat of the car for one last, slow ride to the veterinarian’s office. I’ll sit with Boone on the floor of the examination room and the vet and her assistant will come in and sit on the floor with us. We’ll look at each other without a word, and then I’ll nod yes. The first syringe will sedate him. The second one will stop his heart. I’ll hold him in my arms as he takes his last breath and his body goes limp. I owe that to him, to be there, to let him die in his favorite place – my arms. Sure, I’ll be bawling my eyes out. And I won’t enjoy it. But I’ll accept it. I already do. I have to. I knew this day was coming 12 years ago when we drove him home from the rescue kennel, a spry two-year-old, full of vim and vigour.
We know nothing lasts, but we fall in love anyway. It won’t be the first time I’ve put a dog down, and it won’t be the last. But saying yes to love means saying yes to everything else, and it’s childish to pick and choose experiences as if life were a simple consumer experience, a shopping trip where you only get what you want.
If you want any of it, you must say yes to all of it.
Our tears, our disappointments, and our failures are the engines of our emergence. In the end, we must have gratitude even for our suffering. Protecting ourselves from life’s vicissitudes stifles and ultimately extinguishes our spirit the way a shovel of dirt extinguishes a campfire. Besides, it isn’t possible anyway. No one escapes unscathed. Security is an illusion. The only choice left to us is moving forward with a yes on our lips instead of a no.
And suffering is not yet done giving gifts.
When we live consciously awake to our suffering, fully acknowledging the way our wounds construct the frame upon which our magnificence is built, we gain an unprecedented capacity for compassion. We empathize with a boldness the timid egotist dare not gamble. With new eyes we see the imperfections of others not as problems, but as opportunities. We still hold high standards and even higher aspirations for ourselves and others, but we accept ourselves and others as is. As the Zen saying goes, “You’re perfect just the way you are, but you could use a little improvement.”
We are now more readily able to forgive. We know that people are only as good as they know how to be. It isn’t moral weakness as much as cognitive error that drives the evil of the world – even the criminals believe they are actualizing their highest good as best they understand it. All of us are limited and bound by our current mode of thinking, our current concept of ourselves and the world. As we interact with others in the workplace, in our families, and in our communities, we soften our glance, stand firm, and sway to and fro like tall trees in high wind. Our flexibility is our strength. Our own woundedness and our own imperfection are the talismans that unlock our vision into the woundedness of others. We get better at hearing what isn’t said, seeing what isn’t shown, and knowing what can’t be known. Yes it’s a paradox. But such is the mystery at the center of all things.
The last gift of our broken places is a deep and vibrant humility. Because we have been laid low by the body blows of grief and sorrow, we know full well that we are not in charge of any of this. We are merely witnesses. We engage as effectively and powerfully as we can, intending to do good, aspiring to build great things and practicing our craft as consciously as possible. And yet, no matter how flexible you are, a sudden gust can knock it all down. The ephemeral, transitory nature of reality humbles all but the most stubbornly ignorant among us. Wisdom understands its weakness in the face of larger forces.
The broken places, in us and in others, fortify us, teach us, and in the final analysis hold us all together. We are supported in all we do by the strength of our broken places. And there is still one final revelation. Not only is our strength, our empathy, our forgiveness, and our humility rooted in our wounds, but so is our love. Love is the flowering and the fruition of our strength, our empathy, our forgiveness and our humility – each of these experiences, each of these modes of consciousness leads us into the heart of the sacred fire, a fire that at once burns away everything about us that is inauthentic, while forging an unbreakable bond between all of the things that matter. From now on, every chasm bridged, every wound healed, and every longing fulfilled. This is how we grow whole from the broken places.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/peterhbolland, hear his music at www.reverbnation.com/peterbolland, or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org