I had a really great conversation the other night, over nachos, margaritas, and taco salad. Seven of us sat around a table and I got to do one of my most favorite things: listen to the stories of other people. When I was little girl, I used to ask people, “What is it like to be you?” It was the best way I knew to phrase what I really wanted to know, which was, tell me everything about you that brought you to this very moment right here. I still want to ask this question of everyone I meet. If I could, I’d sit at a table and listen to peoples’ stories until all of the stories had been spoken. I’d absorb them into myself, somehow.
On the rare occasion that I am gifted a piece of someone else’s story, I recognize I am being given a glimpse into their heart. It’s sacred territory I’m being invited to discover. To a person, when I hear their stories, every single one involves some experience of heartbreak. No matter how we might seek to guard against it, it would seem we can’t get through this life without the breaking of the center of ourselves.
Sitting around the baskets full of chips and guacamole and ramekins filled with salsa, one young woman told a story of an encounter which began quite innocently. The story is hers to tell, so I will not recount it here, but as she told her story, I learned a lesson that I want to share here. I think it fits with what we’re reading. Here goes:
One of the Safest Spaces
In our practice of democracy, and as we navigate political (or religious, or family, or community) landscapes, we will inevitably bump up against people whose hearts have been broken, just as ours have been. What we cannot know is whether their heart has been broken open, or shattered into a million razor-sharp shards. We cannot know this at first but, within just a few moments it will become clear to us. The broken-open hearts respond with grace, while the shattered hearts often reflect bitterness. This is not to say one way is right and the other wrong. This is simply to say that this is the way these things go. There is no judgement here, only observation.
So, imagine you find yourself in a political conversation and someone whose heart has been shattered—for whatever reason—begins to unleash their bitterness in your direction. Perhaps you’ve had this experience before. What you know is that you can do nothing, really, about the state of that person’s shattered heart, even though your engagement with them puts you directly in the path of the razor-sharp shards of their heart—shards which they, unknowingly perhaps, have flung in your direction. It is a painfully shocking experience, the very first time you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these flying shards. But the thing is, these razor-sharp shards need a safe place to land and, surprisingly, a heart which has been broken open is one of the safest spaces of all. Here’s how Palmer describes it:
The broken-open heart is not a rarity to be found only among saints but a common feature in the lives of ordinary people, including ourselves. You suffer the death of someone who gave your life meaning. Then you go through a long underground passage of grief when life without that person barely seems worth living. But one day you emerge and discover, to your surprise, that because of your devastating loss, your heart feels more grateful, alive, and loving. The heart is an alchemical retort that can transform dross into gold. (p. 60)
Our transformation begins in our hearts. Your individual transformation from bitterness to grace will start at the center of yourself. We get distracted when we succumb to the admonitions of those who insist the world is either/or, despite the very clear evidence all around us that the world is both/and, and so is the God who created it. God is for us—all of us. I really cannot say this enough. God is not for that group and against that other group. God is for all of us. Whether we are broken open or shattered at the very center of ourselves, God is for us. The question is, can we also be for each person we come in contact with, even though their brokenness threatens harm to us? I believe we can, but only after we’ve allowed our hearts to break open.
At the dinner table that night, my friend was nursing a wound she’d received from the razor-sharp shard of someone else’s shattered heart. The incident she shared had happened months before and yet, she still nursed the wound—not wondering words like, “Why me?” or “Why did that person respond that way?” or “Who in the world does she think she is to treat me that way?” and because these were not the questions she was asking, I knew she carried within her a heart that had been broken open. She had done the hard, internal work to which we each are being invited:
For many of us, the inner is alien territory, unmapped, the last place we want to go. the inner journey that might allow us to find life-giving sources of meaning within us and between us is blocked by two fears—that we will get lost in this terra incognita and that what we find in those uncharted wastes may frighten or even harm us… (p. 62).
We Are Stewards of One Another’s Brokenness
And so I told my friend, “I hate that that happened to you. It was awful. You were the recipient of that woman’s brokenness.” And it was true. But, I also told my friend, “While it’s awful, and I’m so very sorry, it’s also a good thing, because you will be a very good steward of that woman’s pain. That experience will always serve as a formative moment in your life, and you will not squander it.” In the safe space of my friend’s open heart, the bitterness of the other woman’s brokenness would be transformed from dross into gold, and the world will be a better place because of it.
Of course, we are human, and there is only so much capacity we have for stewarding the pain of others. But we don’t do this alone. We do this work individually, yes. But the result of this very sacred, internal work, is transformation—first in us, and then in the way we practice politics, in our places of worship, in our families, and in our communities. Our internal work changes us and we become less invested in being right and more invested in helping to bring healing wherever we encounter shattered lives, shattered systems, shattered families and communities, and shattered hearts. We are stewards of one another’s pain, as much as our own broken hearts are able to absorb and transform it. We are not each other’s enemies, no matter what we may have been told. In the chambers of our broken-open hearts, lies hope for a broken, confused, and divided world.
Some questions for you: What sections of chapter three stand out to you the most? Has your heart been broken open, or apart? What are the results of that brokenness?