There are days when brokenness is palpable. There is brokenness in my community of friends, several of whom struggle with the pain of loss and have been recently visited by the depths of grief. There is brokenness in the federal government impasse. There is brokenness in workplace and work-life tensions. There is brokenness in letting go, saying good-bye, recognizing unhealed wounds in our own lives and spirit that are activated by the pain we encounter in the world. This life can be a hard road to travel.
I’ve been thinking about brokenness today for these reasons, and perhaps that is what made me step into a dialogue on Facebook around a Fresh Air interview Terry Gross conducted with Elizabeth Smart. To me, this story is all about brokenness. If you haven’t heard it, here is the link. Listen to all of it, not just the surface. There is one part I really want to talk about in which I think there is a profound lesson, a small point of light:
Now, there are two things that strike me about this interview. The first is that while Elizabeth Smart may come across as confident, self-assured, and ‘healed” during this interview, I believe that brokenness is still the main theme which comes through in this conversation. She talks about being so drained of everything by her captors that she couldn’t even fathom telling anyone what her name was. This level of broken is something that, mercifully, most of us will never have to experience. But people do. Some of them are famous, and some of them are known only to themselves. Some experience hurt by captors who will later pay the price. Some will be hurt by people who will continue to have power over themselves and others, and who may never come to “justice” in our society. Some will be so broken that they will hurt others the same way they were hurt, perhaps just trying to touch the face of what it feels like to be human and have identity. This is a painfully difficult reality to take in.
But, what this story offers for me is the recognition that brokenness is not the end of the story. Brokenness is a fragile state that empties us. Maybe, just maybe, the depths of our brokenness empties us and opens us up so that even the smallest acts of grace can seep in. You’ll notice I didn’t say “fix it” because that could take days, weeks, years, a lifetime or perhaps even more. Open wounds don’t heal rapidly. Sometimes our deepest wounds are still healing below the surface even when they begin to pass inspection on the outside. But all this brokenness leaves room for so much grace.
This brings me to what was, for me, the most lasting and perhaps unsettling aspect of this interview. At one point mid-way through the interview, Elizabeth describes to Terry how people would notice her in the complete head to toe covered robes that she was wearing. I painfully listened as Elizabeth described how she would notice people crossing the street in downtown Salt Lake, how they would walk as far away from her and her captors as possible without making eye contact, then they would cross back to pass them. All the while, she knew this was to avoid having to make contact.
Ouch. That one hit my heart.
This pained me, because its real. I see it daily, and I engage in it just like the rest of the world. Pretending not to see. Stepping away from something that seems bizarre and out of place. Defining the world by “us” and “them” and putting up a wall between myself and the world of pain that emerges when I realize how much the other may be going through that I simply don’t know about and perhaps cannot even comprehend. I do willingly step in to brokenness with my friends, or people with whom I work with in professional and personal helping capacities. But it is really easy for me to divert away from other widespread brokenness in the world. We can walk to the other side of the street metaphorically so many times. Is there a captive, broken young soul that we pass up the opportunity to assist when we do that? Possibly. Can we fix everyone we see? Probably not. And that juxtaposition between caring but feeling incompetent to fix is one of the things that keeps us from crossing over to the other side.
Let’s for just a moment consider that it isn’t our job to “fix” people, but to simply be present in this world with them as connected, loving human beings. We cannot in our limited human capacity fix homelessness, poverty, abuse, mental health, death, grief…the list goes on. We can, however, be present in a broken world to make eye contact. To say a prayer. To learn someone’s name. To offer basic, momentary support. To advocate. To give voice to those whose circumstances silence them. To stand up and say something when power is misused. These are just simple, daily actions. But, if we engage in them with intention they transform into acts of radical compassion.
In a broken world, there are enough gaps that our simple acts can find ample opportunity to sink in. From a faith perspective, this may mean that we allow divine grace to use us exactly as we are, as one of a thousand small moments that could seep in and begin to fill the cracks of brokenness. From a human perspective, irrespective of whether we believe in a higher power or a greater purpose, we act in ways of human compassion because in those actions the world of this present moment changes, even incrementally. This bends the arc toward justice, compassionate action after compassionate action.
If we are still enough to take it in, we may also experience the transformative grace that seeps in to cracks of our own brokenness, too.