Stepping into the New Year, following my broken heart
This post is named for Alice Walker’s beautiful book, The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. This phrase has been ringing through my mind during the past few couple of weeks as a mantra to steady me…
“The way forward is with a broken heart, Mary. The way forward is with a broken heart.”
This is partly in response to the terrible shooting of ten children and seven adults in Connecticut on December 14th, but the words had already started cycling through my thoughts earlier that week, after I heard that a client I work with, let’s call her Pam, had a particularly awful experience that left me feeling shaken and wondering how I can possibly help in a world where there can be such pain.
In the following days, I saw more clients and did some good work, and was beginning to feel better about facing the ongoing challenge of working close to great pain, and then during the day on Friday I got the news about the shootings. I don’t check the news during the day, so I heard it from a client. The client who told me about it has a young daughter. We sat in stunned silence together, feeling how close the tragedy was to his life.
That evening I was scheduled to teach a class on using mindfulnass as a tool to deal with powerful, difficult feelings, including depression and anxiety, and In the class everyone was grappling with their responses to the tragedy. Parents were feeling horror at the thought of losing a child; people of several different faiths discussed the terrible angst of seeing the fragility of their practices in the face of such violence; and everyone was reeling. It was a powerful and intense class. I guess I can say it was a good class, in the way that Raymond Carver uses the word “good” in A Small Good Thing, his short story about another child killed by an adult in a senseless act. His use of the word good is painful in the extreme. The goodness of a small gesture of kindness in the face of incredible loss.
On Saturday, I was exhausted, and it was a relief to have some free time and a Netflix movie that I wanted to watch, so it seemed a good chance to sit and allow that alternate world to take over for a couple of hours. But my choice, made months before, and nudging its slow way up the queue to arrive this week, was a film called The Stoning of Soraya M, an excruciating movie, set in a remote village in Iran at the beginning of the Ayatollah’s regime, about a young woman’s murder as a result of the lies and manipulation by her sadistic husband who wants his wife killed so he can marry a young girl. It’s a powerful movie, and a good movie, again in a use of the word “good” that can contain not only intense suffering, but also the important function of a voice for helping us find our way to healing. The scene of the stoning is graphic and horrific, and watching it, you understand something of the level of brutality and the pain that is stoning a human being to death. I stopped in the middle, appalled and overwhelmed, even though I had known what was coming from the beginning. But after a few minutes I turned it back on and watched to the end, because it is based on a true story, and I needed to know what happened after this young woman’s death. I walked around stunned afterwards, feeling connections of misery across the globe.
All of this left me staggering. As a witness, and as a person pledged to do my best to help, I found myself spinning wildly through thoughts: “What can I do? How can I possibly do enough? I can’t do enough. I’m not enough. How can I do this? The world is too much. Life is too hard! What on earth I am doing trying to be a therapist?”
At work the next week, I took a walk on my lunch break, and, feeling the sun on my skin, which had surprised me by breaking through the morning’s mist, I felt how good it was to receive that warmth and light — a small good thing — and reminded myself, “The way forward is with a broken heart, Mary. The way forward is with a broken heart.”
I have had the deep privilege of learning from teachers who have addressed terrible suffering. My primary teacher, the venerable Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, developed his understanding in the crucible of the war in his home country of Vietnam, witnessing violence that was as appalling as the shooting of the children in Sandy Hook, injustice as terrible as the stoning of women in Iran. and suffering as great as my client Pam’s.
The commitment Thich Nhat Hahn made then was to not turn his back, to not condemn, to not take sides, and to not give up heart, but to do his best to help those who needed help, with love and steady breaths, and with a recognition of our inter-relatedness and the knowledge that their pain and our pain are one. He has inspired thousands of people to commit their lives to peace and the work of healing themselves and their communities.
But Thich Nhat Hahn also tells us, “Suffering is not enough.” Our job as practitioners is to bring our most skillful tools to each specific situation, and when our own suffering is too much, what is required is that we reconnect to something beautiful, so we can begin to recover. The sunshine on my skin at lunch began the transition to reconnection with the great beauty that is also in the world, and reconnection to my own broken heart and my ability to love the world.
In a recent interview on Krista Tippet’s radio show, On Being, the Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy says this:
“If you are afraid of your grief and pave it over, you shut down. Apathy, and our difficulty in looking at what we’re doing to our world, stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain. We are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or fear. If we can be with our pain, it turns. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it, but when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”
When we can just be with our pain and keep breathing,
it turns to reveal its other face.
And the other face of our pain for the world
is our love for the world.
Joanna Macy, too, is telling us that the way forward is with a broken heart, and that it isn’t even in spite of our broken heart that we move forward, but because of it, using its pain as a beacon that directs our way. I strongly suggest you listen to this beautiful interview.
So I pull these threads together, and begin to weave something that I hope might hold, all the while chanting my mantra, with gratitude to Alice Walker for giving me a line to hang onto… “It’s ok Mary, the way forward is with a broken heart.”
I am weaving my small piece of Indra’s Net, the net of connection to all other beings, with a jewel at each place where the threads cross, reflecting all the other jewels including myself, Pam, Soraya M, and including the other women and men she represents who are tortured and oppressed. Including also the parents of the children at Sandy Hook, the children who died and the children who lived, the adults who were killed and those who love them, and including my teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, and all those who were devastated by the war in Vietnam and by wars throughout space and time. And ok, even though I do not want to include them, including Adam Lanza, and Soraya’s husband, although that is a tough call for me. But having seen my own violence, confusion and rage, remembering how terrified of myself I was in my twenties, knowing I might kill myself if I couldn’t handle my feelings, and more recently, watching myself in traffic screaming at other drivers when I’ve been operating too close to my limit for too long, I know they are on a continuum with me. And although they went far down toward an end I have worked hard to stay away from, I know there but for the grace of God go I. It’s pretty easy to have boundless compassion without focusing on individuals, but the up-front real life details are essential if I am to make a difference.
And I am committed to making a difference, and I want to inspire others to do that too, because in community is the only way we can really heal. These past weeks have been enormously challenging for lots of people and for me too, and I need to keep moving forward and doing my best. I have a commitment to the world and to the beings that inhabit it. I made this commitment unconsciously when I was a young child who had perhaps a greater than average impulse toward empathy, and I made it consciously and publicly in my early thirties, when I realized that I truly wanted to be a force for peace on the planet, but my own wounding was my biggest obstacle. I know now it is also my primary asset. I embarked then, and am still on, a path of healing and learning how I can best contribute — a long spiral, widening every year as I go over old ground with new awareness, and also a corresponding spiral moving deeper toward the center, as I develop the strength to witness my own suffering, buried deep within me.
In a recent post, I argued for the link between our own happiness and our contribution to the well being of others and to our community. I know that offering our love to the world helps us overcome sadness and despair. As I pause on the brink of a New Year, a day that millions of people are going to make resolutions for ways they want to change their lives, I would like to return to this idea and quote from an article I stumbled across the other day that suggests a piece of information that we might want to consider:
When asked what one resolution would have the greatest impact on your longevity, Friedman [a researching in longetivity in humans] suggests that you toss your ambitious list of behavior changes, and spend time with family and friends instead. Connecting with and helping others is more important [to your well-being] than obsessing over one’s diet, rigorous exercise program, or work load. Do that and the other elements will fall into place.”
So my wish for this New Year that you and I may find new ways to connect with community, to love one another and to heal. May we find and share great joy in 2013.
Let me end by offering Joanna Macy’s translation of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
Yes. I give myself to it.
Happy New Year.