Breaking Open Our Hearts


Last week, we spoke of naming our experience. This may be done from the silence of our own heart in solitude. We may also be helped by having it named by another, whether by a listening friend in conversation, or in a poem, story or other art form.

I heard an interview last week with poet, Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem. He stresses that poetry can help us to get in touch with and find expression for our own inner experiences, whether of joy or sorrow or of both together. Such poetry can thereby convey not only that we are understood but can also expand our compassion beyond ourselves.

He has just published a collection of poetry of the last 200 years, entitled 100 Poems to Break Your Heart. One of these is by Mary Oliver, called Lead. After speaking of a loon found dead on the shore of polluted waters, she ends the poem with these words. “I tell you this / to break your heart, /by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world.”

There is also the black spiritual, Let us break bread together. The word “together” suggest that the breaking of bread refers not just to sharing a meal but also the breaking open or sharing of self in the context of this basic human activity.

The image of breaking or of heartbreak, seems to have two main senses, that are at least sometimes related. There is both the experience of profound hurt and yet also that of opening up, as both Mary Oliver and the spiritual express. I recall one striking example..

Many years ago, a presentation was offered at the Children’s Aid Society with people who had problems with alcoholism and with physical abuse of their children. They had been given the choice of either going to prison or entering a rehabilitation program. Those who now spoke were those who had followed this program. Among them was one young man in his thirties who looked, if I may put it this way, as if he had been beaten up by life. Yet he spoke with a quiet wisdom. He told us that it was not until he got in touch with his own pain that he realized how he was hurting others.

That comment has always remained with me, and was echoed years later in the observation of Richard Rohr He wrote that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. If we do not recognize and wrestle with our own pain, we will inflict it on others, even unknowingly. I think that everyone has a degree of sorrow in their lives. Author Wayne Muller has said that suffering is like a wind that blows through everyone’s life. Sometimes it blows as a more gentle breeze, yet other times as a fierce gale.

When it is not so overwhelming as to destroy all hope (at least for a time) our sorrow can be a force that opens us up. The breaking of our heart can be as well, in some way, the breaking open of our heart. A first challenge is to recognize rather than deny our own hurt, to acknowledge that we are vulnerable (literally, able to be wounded), rather than pretend to invincibility. A second aspect, often inseparable from the first, is to entrust our vulnerability to an intelligently trustworthy other person. Otherwise, as the person at the CAS admitted, we will project it, even unknowingly on to others and inflict pain on them.

I recall again an incident that occurred during a time when I was sharing meals with and telling stories to children at a residential treatment home. They had seen a cross on top of a church and asked me what it meant. I stood up, clenched my fists in front of me and asked what they thought would happen. They said that it looks like you’re going to punch someone. I then stood with my hands splayed defensively in from of me, and they said it looks like you’re trying to protect myself against someone hitting you. I then spread my arms wide and asked again what they thought was happening. One child said that I was probably going to hug someone. But another added that yes, but you’re leaving yourself wide open. What I then explained in simple terms is that we best grow and find life, not by anger and fear, but by openness, even though it leaves us vulnerable. I knew that the children understood, because they then playfully asked me to stand there with my arms outstretched while they pretended to run at me with clenched fists.

This is the same idea as the breaking open of the heart, an openness to life and what it brings, even though this openness may sometimes hurt. The same idea is expressed by the notion of the walls that we may construct around us, walls of hurt and fear and hostility. When we hide behind these wall we tend not only not to let anyone in, but to become a sniper at others from these walls One interesting question is to inquire about the walls we have built around ourselves, and what they attempt to keep out and what they might allow in. We can also ask when they may be necessary or when they shut out life and growth and friendship. Certainly Leonard Cohen’s words resonate here: ,”there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

May your sorrows and everything that has broken your heart break it open to compassion for yourself and others. May all the cracks in your life become places where the light gets in.

Weekly reflection, June 6, 2021