By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes you have to close the door on perspectives that don’t serve you.
There’s a narrative at work in our world in which human brokenness plays a key role. The idea that the pain of our lives, of the world, breaks us is not a new one, but social media proliferates it in different ways. Not long after my divorce I stumbled across this Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I affixed myself to that notion. I viewed it as a roadmap. Not only did it acknowledge how I felt and insisted that I wasn’t alone, it showed me that there was something I could do about it – get stronger.
The first guy I dated after my divorce actually told me I was broken, and very generously offered to help put me back together – the way he thought I should be. Unsurprisingly, that situation did not work out. If I was going to be strong at the broken places, I knew my first feat of strength would be to oust him from my life. I recently saw a meme about the way dating in your 40s and 50s is like going to the dump and looking for the least broken and disgusting thing. It reminded me of the way he had looked at me, and how much I’d hated it. But it also reminded me that this “broken” narrative was also a story I had told myself for some time, and hints of it still came back. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful ones that exist. This notion of human brokenness is an idea that many people respond to, and it’s not exclusive to the way romantic relationships impact us. The world is brutal enough that we all feel this way sometimes, just like Hemingway said. The world breaks everyone, with tragedies tailored uniquely to our own hearts.
But, I’m through tolerating this analogy. Even if you haven’t thought of yourself in this way for a while it’s easy to fall back in to. We begin to see ourselves as healed, as actually stronger in the broken places, and then life pushes back. We face a challenge that’s harder to work through than we thought, or we find ourselves in the process of evolving into a new relationship, and consequently a new version of ourselves, and it naturally forces us to look at who we’ve been. That can hurt, and it can make us feel as though we haven’t come as far as we thought. Or, we witness a friend or loved one going through a tough time and it reminds us of challenges we have faced, and how maybe we didn’t come through to the other side as strong as we imagined. Through all of this, it is remarkably easy to fall back into thinking of ourselves as broken. It’s easy when faced with the pain of growth to feel as though we’re not as strong in the broken place as we thought, that maybe we are still broken, that maybe parts of us will always be broken. But in reality, we are simply changing. They aren’t called growing pains for nothing.
It’s true that hearts break, it’s true that we feel overwrought and undone by life’s pain. But it is a tragic way to think of people. It is an achingly solitary way of looking at ourselves. Whether or not we are trying to do our own repair work, or hope that others can somehow fix us, or hope to align ourselves with someone who has some sort of complimentary brokenness – as if our fractured or missing pieces can somehow fit together – the idea of brokenness still seems bleak. It is a notion filled with despair, easy to embrace, and difficult to move away from.
Within this notion of brokenness, we slide further and further away from ourselves. We imagine a fractured version of us, and insist it is who we are, and the world agrees.
I’m not saying there is something wrong with feeling broken. I think it’s pretty unavoidable. If you love any human or animal in this world, one way or another you are going to crumble. Sometimes I’ve felt that the breaks I thought I repaired are in fact poorly healed, weak spots that continue to pain me. Sometimes I’ve felt that no matter what I do, some breaks will always be there, as if their sole purpose is to remind me to question happiness that comes my way. Many of us who have experienced deep pain have at least for a time believed that the things that have broken within us have rendered us incapable of loving properly, trusting fully, of receiving the love being offered to us. But we have to stop telling ourselves these stories. We have to make other ideas just as real to us as brokenness.
It’s not enough to say, today I’m stronger at the broken places. Because tomorrow may re-break us and then what? It is certain that we need ways of looking at pain that make it palatable. We need those roadmaps, and to feel understood, and to feel less alone. Let yourself feel broken when you feel it, but don’t ever let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you are. Search the world for other metaphors.
I spent the spring exploring the natural world in search of metaphors about renewal and growth (remember those crickets we talked about?). Lately, I’m loving this idea of rebuilding, rehabilitation, renovation – not of broken things, but of the parts of ourselves that get neglected when we the world hurts us. The process of renovation is slow, and non-binary. It is not a journey from broken to repaired, or, to come back to Hemingway, from broken to stronger. It’s a process of devoting attention to different areas of our lives and quietly reviving them, nurturing them, clearing away debris and shining a light on the strength of our foundations. It is about making things stronger, but the focus is not on the brokenness. The focus is on seeing all the potential and helping it come into being in a new way. It recognizes the past but builds toward the future.
The rest of that Hemingway quote is this: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway saw first-hand much of the world’s pain and he did a fair amount of causing it himself. Maybe we can listen to other stories than this one. Maybe there is no roadmap to renewal in quotes about the way life is either going to break or kill us. Let’s not live by quotes or memes. Let’s remember resilience, let us recall strength that comes not from how many times we’ve gotten ourselves through something tough, but the strength that’s deeper than that in us, that has always been there. There is a part of us willing to find new metaphors if that’s what we need to move forward, there’s a part of us that embraces love even though we know the risks, there is a part of us that recalls even in the most painful moments of our lives that we are more than a collection of broken parts. Let us remember that in insisting on our own brokenness we inflict more wounds.
We all handle hurt differently. I rally around metaphor, my Pied Piper leading me someplace new. I crave new ways of looking at things, hoping to understand better the world around me, the people in it, the universe of my own heart. I think our strength lies in the seeking, more so than in whatever we find.