Celebrating Brokenness

While I was walking home yesterday I was musing on various things and the chief of these is the question I have often asked myself: why is it that most of the dearest and closest friends I have are deeply damaged people in some ways? Oh sure, that’d be because they have me in common. Somebody has said that the people we attract into our lives mirror our own inner state of soul.

I admit quite willingly I am a mess. But I am a functioning mess nonetheless: I hold down two remarkably difficult jobs and do them well, I have been married since the dawn of time to a man I still love, I have managed to succesfully rear one child to adulthood( defining success here is not on the agenda) and I’ve never yet been arrested by the police for socially unacceptable behaviour (like murder or GBH or public drunkness). But despite all this I know full well that inside I am pretty mashed up and broken up and a real live crash test dummy.

If you could look at my soul as a collection of bones, you’d see unhealed breaks, compound and simple fractures and even bones that are little more than fragments of crushed egg shells.

Thank God no one can see into the soul like that.

But brokenness has a strange side. The edges of those internal fractures rub against each other, creating pain but also friction. And that friction creates a kind of inner heat that becomes transformed into a fire. Now the fire can go several ways. You can douse it in the ice water of whatever pain relief works for you, be it drink or drugs or sex or soap operas or whatever, and stop the pain. Or the fire can rage out of control and lead you into psychosis and loss of self. Or the fire becomes one of creation.

The painter sees an inner vision rising from that pain and the flames and seizes his brushes or his chisel, the poet rushes to capture the words on paper, the singer/songwriter reaches for their guitar, the shaman draws their drum to their heart and drums the pain for the people.

And the writer simply writes.

It’s a process of alchemy, defying description and definition, of weaving not the pain itself but the reactions to the pain and turning it into something that is beyond the pain.

I’ve been given morphine many times over the year by medical people and it has a strange effect not of stopping the pain but of moving it to one side so you lose conection with it. It’s a weird state to be in: you are there and the pain is there, so real you can almost touch it but it isn’t hurting you any more. And while the pain doesn’t hurt any more, you can lie still and stop thrashing around to try and escape it and then, a miracle happens:

You can start to heal.

It’s the same process with writing. The strange internal chemistry takes the fire and your feelings and your intense pain and it changes it. You find the pain still exists but no longer inside you, burning its way out,  but now it is to one side, so you can look at it burning away, dispassionately and without judgement. And as that fire burns without burning, you can for a while be still and let it be and let yourself heal from it.

Fire cannot burn forever without fuel and eventually the fire burns out. You are left with the memory of the pain and whatever you created. And if you have responded sensitively and skillfully, you are left with something that can act as a marker for someone else, a template so that they too can feel your pain, feel it move beyond you and then subside into healing and in doing so, they can experience some measure of healing themselves.

There’s a story in Greek mythology about the centuar Chiron, tutor to the young Hercules who was given a wound that would never heal and also immortality. In his search for relief from his own pain, Chiron found herbs and healings for many many people but his own pain never left him entirely.

For a broken person, perhaps the friction between those ragged fragments of soul will never end because when one soul-bone heals there are still plenty more that hurt beyond measure.  But if art and music and literature rise from these friction flames to heal others of their pain, then perhaps the soul purpose of the brokeness is revealed.

I despair at times of the self help world because it promotes wholeness without understanding brokenness. It’s not a perfect world. It can’t be. We cannot be perfect people because while we remain open and alert to the beauty and wonder of the world we remain open to the horror and the pain and the ugliness to and if our souls are sensitive, we break.

Would you have a world without pain? Then you would also choose a world without sublime beauty and soul too. As night and day are part of the same thing, so too are pain and beauty.

I’d like to leave you with the final stanza of TS Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, from the Four Quartets.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I shall write more about the fire and the rose in another post but I’d like to leave you with a thought. Think of your favourite piece of music, or poem or painting or book. Would you rather that didn’t exist? Because I would be willing to bet that the creator of that fashioned it from their response to that internal friction of soul fragments rubbing against each other.

23 thoughts on “Celebrating Brokenness

  1. Viv,

    You think the poet Rumi lived without pain? Thank God he turned to the Love of God to ease the hurt, the longing, the yearning . . .

    Sometimes, I think things hurt so nicely. But, that’s just me.

    michael j


    • Hi Michael J,
      I’m a great lover of the poems of Rumi. And no, I don’t imagine he lived without pain.
      Our creative offerings are our prayer if you like.
      There is such a thing as exquisite pain, too.


  2. Beautiful as always Viv.
    One thing strikes me though regarding my own experience of the past few years.
    A couple of years ago, I suddenly had the thought, “If I AM this person with ADHD, Depression and a debilitating Anxiety Disorder… If that is who I truly am, then how can I ever be anything else?”
    Fast forward a couple of years and a lot of learning, growing and deep introspection, including some letting go of those previous labels, I am a much healthier, happier person.
    I still struggle with those issues from time to time, but far less often, for far less long and my past no longer plays a role in how I define myself today.
    Not seeing myself as “disordered” anymore has made me stronger, and more confident than I have ever imagined.
    It does make me sad that we choose to see ourselves as broken for any reason, because our experiences are part of our journey. They aren’t who we are.
    Celebrate your strength and courage, because that is also who you are!


    • I am truly delighted that you havr reached that point, Jenny. I’ve never managed it yet. I think I rail against the whole self help industry(I stress the industry here) because it so often fails to take into account the uniqueness of people and their jounrey to this point. They also seem to glorify the homogenous corn-fed image of wellness that is as much a part of what broke many in the first place.
      I am disordered and damaged. I can’t change it. I can change how I use that and how I grow from it and through it. And I can also challenge the label that attaches to my experiences and the space I find myself in. By label I mean the whole good/bad beautiful/ugly basics.
      blessings to you too, and thanks.


  3. Excellent points you make.
    from 1 crash test dummy to another Thank you

    You are the one who can make us all laugh
    But doing that you break out in tears
    Please don’t be sad if it was a straight mind you had
    We wouldn’t have known you all these years

    Dear Mister Fantasy Traffic


      • just an old song about performers /artists.

        Mr Fantasy makes everyone happy but doing that he breaks down in tears.
        It is saying(to me anyway) that if he didnt have this pain and burden no one would have every known him, that is to say he wouldnt have been an artist at all.
        Seemed to fit ,anyway I thought of it straightway.


  4. Hi Viv – It is so bizarre to read your posts – it is like looking in a mirror! I’ve been wrestling with writing from my heart, admitting my brokenness to the world and accepting the vulnerability that this creates. As I’m new to the world of writing, I’m learning that impactful writing has to be pure truth, and without self consciousness. I just loved this post – thank you so much for sharing it! Until next time, Kerry 🙂


    • You are very welcome here, Kerry.
      I find that thinking about these things(usually after a long telephone conversation with a close friend) and then writing them actually acts as a healer of the pain.


  5. Beautifully expressed. Art has healing powers for both the artist and the recipient. Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

    As an aside, I’ve never had that experience with morphine. Completely eradicates pain for me. Or perhaps I’ve been given some souped up anodyne from the same family, or I’ve simply forgotten afterwards. But your description of the experience sounds very zen – awareness of pain but no suffering.


    • You are quite right and I love the Cohen quote.
      Everyone’s experience of morphine is different; the last time I had some I made notes, and yes I know how strange that sounds: mind blowing pain and distress and I reach for my notebook as it eases away….
      the funny thing is there is a question they ask in hospital. Some ask “Are you IN pain?” and some ask, “Do you HAVE pain?” I guess in the end, the question is moot as long as it is not “ARE you pain?” and define youself as the pain you feel.
      thanks Alice, take care!


  6. When I look back, the two most painful events in my life have been the most powerful teachers. Both situations led me to try and dull the pain, one way or another … Besides alcohol, being mean to my husband and staying out all night, blame was my preferred opiate.

    Thankfully, by working out what wasn’t working for me and getting response-able to what had happened, I started to plant new seeds. Now I look around and see this garden of wild, beautiful, thorny roses that is my life and I realise that if life hadn’t dumped these sacks of manure on my doorstep, my soul/soil would have lacked the fertility and richness to experience new growth.

    New manure will come my way again, undoubtedly. Dare I say “bring it on?” … er, no!! But at least when it does happen I know I have the experience and the wellies to wade on through! Great post Viv. X


    • I am intending to write a guest post for my dear friend J (http://controlyourdestiny.wordpress.com) entitled When the wells run dry, as a part of this thought about richness and fertility for new growth. I shall announce it here but wellies are not compulsory… To be honest, most of my own attempts to dull the pain have been about creating other pain I can deal with, like cutting. I have very very seldom been mean or “ornerary” to another living thing, largely because if I ever started, I would never stop. Hurting myself doesn’t hurt anyone BUT me.
      I used to attend Midnight Mass wearing wellies; the best thing for splodging through the Norfolk mud from our rectory to the village church. I don’t think anyone minded…


  7. I think everyone is a mess, more or less. At least you are functioning, as you say, and you have your way of contributing to the world.

    I don’t think of myself as hurt or broken. In fact, I have lived a pretty sheltered life so far, thanks God. But I’m one of those extremely vulnerable people who frequently find themselves at the brink of breakdown. I have been pestered by my eating disorder since my early teenage years, which has definitely had a big say in my whole life. That’s been my way of dealing with pain, unfortunately. I haven’t been able to replace it with something less self-destructive. I’ve made some progress, but I have terrible moments of regression too.


    • You are a treasure to the world and deserve cherishing and nurturing and protecting; your sensitivity brings you pain but it also brings you insights.
      Bless you!


  8. You are so incredibly nice to me, Viv.
    Indeed insights can be precious both for me and for others, but sometimes sensitive people are too much for others to put up with. I believe you know what I mean.
    TS Eliot’s poem is beautiful.


  9. My pain is a treasure – it grounds me in the real world. Without it I would never appreciate the beauty around me, and certainly never put a single word on paper. I never want to lose that connection. Of course, I’m an admitted masochist and a pain junkie, so my process of using pain is decidedly different from yours, but, in the end, the result is the same.


    • Hiya Sessha,
      I find pain has been a double edged treasure for me; I suffer from some severe and chronic pain issues that impact at times heavily in my life and yet, it’s taught me so much. My pain specialist is also quite simply the best doctor I have ever met too.
      mental pain too has taught me so much, not least that it ends.
      Thank you so much for visiting. It’s good to meet you.


      • Chronic pain is, in my mind, the key to learning to appreciate pain. When you have no other option than to medicate yourself into oblivion or learn to cope you’re forced to find another way to handle the pain and separate it from the other aspects of your life so you can actually get things accomplished. I don’t have a pain doctor, but I do have an accupuncturist I’d be lost without (I hate taking meds).


      • I tread a fine line with meds. I have a TNS machine(transcutaneous nerve stimualtion) that helps, but there are plenty of days where I take strong meds or scream. I have taught while effectively stoned by medication and I don’t think my students noticed…I’m a somewhat unorthodox teacher anyway(think Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society)
        I also have learned some breathing and meditation techniques.
        Severe pain is sometimes too much. I had to be hospitalised in November because it came to be so bad one night my blood pressure dropped too far and I passed out.
        But many never realise that pain can push you so far beyond your body.
        I have considered acupuncture; my daughter saw a good one.


  10. Oh, Viv, imagine a world without broken people. Spare me. I suspect the apparently unbroken are rigid, non-resilient and very, very susceptible to fear of being toppled.

    Thankfully the world is full of cracks! The saints convince me! 😀


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