Heartbreak, Violence, and Hope for New Life

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - 5:13am
Photo by Indy Kethdy

Heartbreak, Violence, and Hope for New Life

A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
—Hasidic tale

Heartbreak comes with the territory called being human. When love and trust fail us, when what once brought meaning goes dry, when a dream drifts out of reach, a devastating disease strikes, or someone precious to us dies, our hearts break and we suffer.

What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Violence is not limited to inflicting physical harm. We do violence every time we violate the sanctity of the human self — our own or another person’s.

Sometimes we try to numb the pain of suffering in ways that dishonor our souls. We turn to noise and frenzy, nonstop work, or substance abuse as anesthetics that only deepen our suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and contempt for the poor are among the cruel outcomes of this demented strategy.

A couple embraces on the Hudson River waterfront in Jersey City, New Jersey with the rising One World Trade Center in the background.

(Mario Tama / Getty Images.)

Nations, too, answer suffering with violence. On September 11, 2001, more than three thousand Americans died from acts of terrorism. America needed to respond and plans for war were laid. Few were troubled by the fact that the country we eventually attacked had little or nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked us. We had suffered; we needed to do violence to someone, somewhere; and so we went to war, at tragic cost. A million Iraqis lost their lives, and another four million were driven into exile. Forty-five hundred Americans died in Iraq, and so many came home with grave wounds to body and mind that several thousand more have been victims of war via suicide.

Yes, violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. But we can ride the power of suffering toward new life — it happens all the time.

We all know people who’ve suffered the loss of the most important person in their lives. At first, they disappear into grief, certain that life will never again be worth living. But, through some sort of spiritual alchemy, they eventually emerge to find that their hearts have grown larger and more compassionate. They have developed a greater capacity to take in others’ sorrows and joys, not in spite of their loss but because of it.

Trayvon Martin supporters rally in Times Square on July 14, 2013.

(Mario Tama / Getty Images.)

Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

What can I do to make my tight heart more supple, the way a runner stretches to avoid injury? That’s a question I ask myself every day. With regular exercise, my heart is less likely to break apart into shards that may become shrapnel, and more likely to break open into largeness.

There are many ways to make the heart more supple, but all of them come down to this: Take it in, take it all in!

My heart is stretched every time I’m able to take in life’s little deaths without an anesthetic: a friendship gone sour, a mean-spirited critique of my work, failure at a task that was important to me. I can also exercise my heart by taking in life’s little joys: a small kindness from a stranger, the sound of a distant train reviving childhood memories, the infectious giggle of a two-year-old as I “hide” and then “leap out” from behind cupped hands. Taking all of it in — the good and the bad alike — is a form of exercise that slowly transforms my clenched fist of a heart into an open hand.

Does a nation-state have a heart that can become supple enough to respond to collective suffering without violence? I doubt it. But since I don’t know for sure — and never will if I don’t keep the question alive — I’m not going to yield to cynicism. There are enough real-world facts and possibilities to justify hope. (There is much more on this topic in my book, Healing the Heart of Democracy)

(Alex / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

Remember how people around the world stood in unity with us for a few weeks after September 11, 2001? “Today,” they said, “we, too, are Americans,” because they had known suffering at least as painful as ours. Suppose we’d been able to take in the global flood of compassion that came our way during those post-September 11 days. We might have been given the grace to consider the alternative to war many proposed at the time, including the late theologian and activist, William Sloane Coffin:

“We will respond, but not in kind. We will not seek to avenge the death of innocent Americans by the death of innocent victims elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor. We refuse to ratchet up the cycle of violence that brings only ever more death, destruction and deprivation. What we will do is build coalitions with other nations. We will share intelligence, freeze assets, and engage in forceful extradition of terrorists if internationally sanctioned. [We will] do all in [our] power to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never the law of force.”

That proposal aimed at turning suffering toward new life. As a nation, we lacked the moral imagination and capacity of heart to respond to our suffering with anything other than massive violence. So today we are living into Coffin’s prophecy of “ever more death, destruction and deprivation.” We have traveled some distance, it seems to me, toward becoming “what we abhor.” Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

A reveler watches fireworks explode on New Year's Eve in Rio de Janeiro.

(Mario Tama / Getty Images.)

But alternatives abound in our personal and political lives. Will we use them? It depends on our willingness to exercise our hearts so that when suffering strikes, they will break open to new life.

Lead
by Mary Oliver

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
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.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Reflections

Give with all your love and never count the cost of that giving.

Everything about this post moves me. Mary Oliver's haunting poem left me thinking about words from the Joan Baez song, "If I Knew". In that song, Baez names several precious things that, if she knew where to find them, she would share with her love, but she would not tell the hunters or others who would ravage them. Loons, doves, calypso plants . . .so much of nature has become, to many people, something to be usurped for profit or personal pleasure and indulgence, and it does break my heart again and again.

Your posts and Mary Oliver's poems are "real world facts and possibilities that justify [my] hope." Thank you.

Thank you for the lovely blog post. It is a beautiful reminder to embrace all of life's joys and sorrows with an open and generous heart.

The State Dept. has a traveling exhibit of the outpouring of condolences sent to US embassies after 9-11. Had we allowed ourselves time to grieve, to take in the good will from others, perhaps many lives and much treasure could have been saved. Grief is a necessity.

This left me weeping. My favorite so far. I am in awe of your ability to inspire deep contemplation on a heartfelt, soulful level. I am acutely aware that while my mind is taking in your written words, it is my heart that is left ruminating on them. Thank you.

Suffering, in and of itself, cries out for a change towards justice, but justice to someone in pain looks a lot like suffering, not shared but squared. The desire to be in control and powerful enough to destroy your enemy 10 times over and not worry about their retribution in return. This is called winning the pain game. Justice has become synonymous with punishment and if you can punish someone without fear... you are the victor. I knew a police officer that beat many Black people in the 60's. When ever he would see a Black person on television after the passing of Civil Rights legislation, he would blow up, screaming and hollering about how we can't give those blankety blanks any rights because they are animals. I think what he was afraid of was... retribution, A reckoning of sorts, or plain and simple -Justice for those he abused. Is a supple heart the same thing as justice starting from within and the next step is justice moving outwards or a supple society?

Thank you Parker for your so very deeply moving column!
All your so wisely expressed thoughts are so very true.
Yes,all my own lived experiences through suffering and finding new life brought me to all your insights you have expressed so exquisitely.
May I always remember your words:
" Take it in,take it all in!"
I pray that my own heart will more and more become the supple heart that grows
towards the many forms of love and keeps choosing new life.
Thank you for your great choice of Mary Oliver,s poem: Lead.

This and some of the comments made me think of something I have learned; I demanded justice, but thank God I received mercy instead.

I read this essay this morning after looking at the Carnegie Endowment’s Sada website, which has a truly heartbreaking photo essay of the horrific suffering afflicting the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, under siege and bombed for two years by the Assad regime only now to face attacks by ISIS. Being a witness to suffering sounds consoling at first but then feels utterly inadequate given the scale and obduracy of human vulnerability and cruelty, fear and anger. (And has not the US continued to repeat the mistakes of the Iraq invasion in places like Yemen in which assassinating people with drone strikes has been passed off as foreign policy?) I wish I had Parker Palmer’s faith that “heartbreak” is a path to something sustainably redeemable rather than merely an indifferent spoke in suffering’s continuous wheel. Nonetheless, I appreciate knowing someone can look out upon this landscape and still spy hope. Thank you.

Laura, you so eloquently expressed both my awe and gratitude for Parker Palmer's wise and touching words . . . and my lack of faith at times that much of anything can impede suffering's relentless revolutions. A frequent prayer is "Lord I believe . . . help thou my unbelief."

love Mary Oliver

A moving and spiritually challenging meditation on pain and suffering and loss. It had special healing power for me, having just observed the first anniversary of the deaths, four days apart, of my son and one of my closest friends. I also shared this with my son's friend, who just got out of prison and is struggling to find a place to stand in the world, a way to process his suffering and transform it into purpose. This emotionally evocative article evoked for me Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"- "Thanks to the human heart by which we live/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." Carpe diem.

An emotionally evocative and spiritually challenging reflection on what we all struggle with: how to transform pain and suffering into deeper humanity. Thank you for this essay, Parker. I brought back to me the last lines of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations on Immortality":"Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." Carpe diem.

We seem never to learn. I see the dark clouds of vengeance glaring in the sky. Killing and violence beget more of the same. We never seem to learn.

Parker, this is a beautiful piece. Open our hearts to love and compassion.

Sometimes I see the ravages of a brittle heart in the face of child who has been the victim of the shards. It's hard work this taking in everything and keeping the heart supple. It is really hard. Thank you for reminding us.

This post moved me so much. Incredible choice of quote and poem. I have nothing to add except to note that just as our individual forms of violence are more variegated than simply physical harm, so too is this the case with our collective forms of violence. Our nation's response to 9/11 is just the most extreme and obvious example of this, but subtle acts of violence are committed every day through our energy policy, trade agreements, conditions on foreign aid, etc. What does it take to break the heart of a nation? Perhaps your book has some answers, I will seek them out.

Re: Potry Month, I recommend "to be of use" byMarge Piercy.

Thank you for this beautiful reflection on the heart, on healing, and on hope.

Loved the Mary Oliver poem the first time I read it. You tied it into a beautiful, insightful piece. So enjoy your work.

This excerpt speaks to me: "Remember how people around the world stood in unity with us for a few weeks after September 11, 2001? “Today,” they said, “we, too, are Americans,” because they had known suffering at least as painful as ours. Suppose we’d been able to take in the global flood of compassion that came our way during those post-September 11 days. We might have been given the grace to consider the alternative to war many proposed at the time, including the late theologian and activist, William Sloane Coffin:

“We will respond, but not in kind. We will not seek to avenge the death of innocent Americans by the death of innocent victims elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor. We refuse to ratchet up the cycle of violence that brings only ever more death, destruction and deprivation. What we will do is build coalitions with other nations. We will share intelligence, freeze assets, and engage in forceful extradition of terrorists if internationally sanctioned. [We will] do all in [our] power to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never the law of force.”

That proposal aimed at turning suffering toward new life. As a nation, we lacked the moral imagination and capacity of heart to respond to our suffering with anything other than massive violence. So today we are living into Coffin’s prophecy of “ever more death, destruction and deprivation.” We have traveled some distance, it seems to me, toward becoming “what we abhor.” Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering."

I pray for this movement toward nonviolence (still holding people accountable for their violence) while working toward this opening consciousness to learn to do Jesus type action(mysterious experiential actions among people in violence systems: both economic and physical, while bringing peaceful nonviolent actions) There is suffering that is involved in doing this sort of nonviolence work, but it seems to be "healing-suffering" versus "non-healing-suffering" of war. Sometimes, we must just feel suffering and not do anything immediately until "our heads are on straight." Action without forethought is dangerous at least, fatal at most. Humans must learn to be more strategic. I continue to learn through reading such books as: Struggling With Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation by John Dominic Crossan and What The Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self by Richard Rohr. I am learning how to see the world more through how Jesus lived which includes economic justice and economic dignity to live life in abundance even under horrible Roman occupation and daily Crucifixion violence. Our communities must hold "the powers that be," (wealthy and those in positions of power-empire) accountable to humanity overall without being violent themselves, even in the face of violence to themselves. This suffering experientially with others and within systems of violence are the only ways that positive, redeeming change ever has occurred. Look at Gandhi's nonviolent movement and Martin Luther King's nonviolence movement(grounded in Jesus), both men and their disciples struggled and suffered, but also had moments of joy, singing, communion and changed human lives and systems for the good. It's difficult work and we need joy, art, beauty, humor, dance, music to inspire us to do this hard work of love for one another.

This is wonderful and so true. Parker it seems like you're one of the only ones who is speaking into what our culture needs which is a call to broken open hearts and a return to being we the people. The true "enemy" is not the liberal or conservative but the this spirit that seeks to divide us and that is showing up everywhere. Thank you for being a voice that urges us back to conversation and coming together.

Thank you for this beautiful post...I too believe that our hearts need to be bruised and vulnerable and open to all that is.

Thank you for this eye opening post
"Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering"
How sad but oh how true. Have just had that truth brought home to me recently in a potentially tragic occurrence.

-am praying for a supple heart of a loved one that will be able to "hold suffering in a way that opens to new life"

Thank you Parker for this powerful reflection. Your thought "Violence is what happens when we don't know what else to do with our suffering"has touched me profoundly since I first heard it. Thank you for this compassionate and insightful framing of suffering and our response to suffering.

Thank-you so much for this beautiful reflection. In my experience opening my heart is the only sane way to live a rich full life with all its wonders and sorrows. As I cultivate more openness and less resistance to what is, I suffer less. Its as though the joys and sorrows can flow through me without getting stuck, and with less holding I feel I am able to embrace more.

Violence has been something that I have been curious about lately. What is it's value (if any)? What purpose does it serve, since it keeps happening, it must serve some purpose. What Parker Palmer writes here is a counter-American way to look at pain, suffering, and loss. The great pains (no pun intended) we take to avoid self-awareness and thinking we avoiding pain. I am not sure people have considered there was another option to violence. That option is growth and healing, but not without pain and having to let go of what was, or what we thought was. Let's look at the reason someone feels the impulse to inflict violence (on themselves, others. Nationally, personally), and there our hearts will be broken open for the pain that leads to the infliction of pain.

Thanks, Parker. Bardwell forwarded me your post, and it was what I needed to hear just now.

Thank you...this is a "heart-stretching" read...it gives me courage to not look away. I hope this reaches many...

I do struggle with knowing when to use defensive force and when to use justified offense. Was our intervention in WWII a necessity? Would neutrality have eventually won the day and stopped the killing of Jewish people? Turning the other cheek works with a benevolent enemy as in the case of Ghandi and the English, but what about the radical Muslims who eventually want ALL to convert to their faith? I suppose we can do as Mr. Coffin suggests and freeze assets and take all non-violent measures to prevent the next beheading, but after awhile it may be our head on the chopping block. I wish the media would just say it, it is a religious war and we Christians are like sheep being led to the slaughter. But I hope and pray that goodness will prevail among disillusioned people. Thanks for the insights.

I posted this not long after the loss of my Son. This post resonates so clear. I will continue to nurture a supple heart.

Perspective:
When life shifts into unimaginable form, emotions are raw and awareness is heightened, Love seems to be the only thing that profoundly matters.
It's so close every minute.
The bond between a Mother and a Son, who has passed on, is stronger than ever.
A greater understanding of a grieving Daughter.
The consistent thoughts and prayers expressed daily, are felt.
Even the friends that you've long lost connection with, seem to be in the next room.
No matter what life brings down on us. We should always remember what matters most.
Love.

compassion