The Wisdom of Shattering

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 - 6:39am
Photo by James Thomas

The Wisdom of Shattering

When I was a young competitive gymnast, I remember the day I walked off the floor mat, sat down by myself at its edge, and began to contemplate quitting the sport. I was 12.

Gymnastics had been my life — the defining orbit of my childhood ambitions. But I was ever battling injuries, so much so that I was not only struggling to heal, but I was struggling to learn any new skills at all because I was so afraid of injuring myself again. I had had five casts for eight bone fractures in just four years. As soon as I got a cast off, worked through physical therapy, and built up my strength, another injury hit.

With so many injuries, I was becoming terrified in my little-kid mind of the worst injury I could imagine: breaking my neck.

Once, when practicing a release skill on the uneven bars, my coach had to catch me from falling. I had broken my elbow on this very move, so I was probably too tentative when I released the high bar to fly over, twist mid air, and catch the low bar. I held back. That’s what happens when we are afraid, yet forcing ourselves to go on: we get tense and tentative, which keeps our bodies from knowing how to fly.

My coach was furious with me that I had let my fear affect me. He looked at me and told me to walk to the bathroom, stare in the mirror, and thank God that I wasn’t a paraplegic. I would have been paralyzed the rest of my life, he screamed at me, if he hadn’t caught me. He had saved me from a life in a wheelchair, he said.

I did not entirely believe him, but I did as I was told. Covered in chalk, still wearing my grips for the bars, I walked to the gym bathroom that smelled of Lysol and old linoleum, stared in the mirror at myself, and thanked God I could still walk. I was shaking as I looked at myself, feeling so tiny and vulnerable, wearing my red-and-white-striped cotton leotard.

I lingered in the bathroom, creating for myself a few minutes of relief from facing my coach. In truth, I was far more afraid of my coach than I was of the skill, and I knew that. If my body was tense as I released myself between the bars, it was less about being in flight, and more about the weight of these toxic conditions.

It’s perhaps not surprising that one day I decided I’d had enough of both the sport and its accepted forms of emotional control. That was the day that I walked to the edge of the floor mat and sat down in the middle of gymnastics practice. Sitting down in our four-hour practices was unusual. But I needed for a moment to fathom my options. I remember trying to imagine, somehow, that it was OK to quit. It felt nearly impossible to even conceptualize quitting because I loved this sport and because my dreams were wrapped up in it.

But I was so exhausted. Too much compounded pain.

My coach noticed and came over. He got down on his knees, quietly. When he wasn’t furious with us he was fatherly, and now he was fatherly. He asked how I was. When I didn’t respond, he looked me right in the eyes and told me:

“Remember, you are only a failure if you quit.”

As I was getting up the courage to say “enough” out loud, to begin to even imagine saying “enough,” I was told that admitting limits is precisely how one fails. And if there has been a defining fear of my life, even more than incapacitating physical injury, it’s failing.

Failing and giving up have been inextricable in my mind ever since.

I have been thinking of late about the value of quitting, of giving up and saying “enough” in certain moments because we are simply hurting too much. Because we are exhausted. I don’t mean giving up on our dreams for good, but I do mean allowing ourselves room to be fractured. Allowing ourselves space to feel and step away, especially when we know something deep inside us needs to heal. Can stepping away from a goal also be, in some way, stepping toward? A different kind of movement, where we grow stronger into our own being, even as we grow into our dreams?

So many of us are told from an early age that the value is always in the striving, in never ceasing to persevere, in ever putting back together our broken pieces. We are told that we are strong if we disregard our fears and fight through the challenges, though our bodies scream for us to stop and rest and reevaluate the conditions in which we strive.

It is implied that we are successful if we stay the course in whatever we are invested. Perhaps that investment is a profession, a relationship, a religion, a moral code, or an image of ourselves. Or perhaps that investment is much bigger than any one person — like our collective investments in capitalism, or fossil fuels, or building up a military.

Quitting something and developing new imaginations is not a skill we often give much credit. But I wonder if, at some point, letting ourselves shatter could be our bravest act. Can a moment of giving up be that sacred turning point if we infuse it with faith? When we acknowledge that we have feelings, that we have limits, that we don’t have to be superhuman, that sometimes we experience things that do, indeed, for the time being, gut our capacity to go on — can these moments of recognizing our pain and limits be our most courageous ones?

In other words, what happens when we are simply too fractured? When we were never meant to be healthy in the current circumstances, anyway? When is giving up our current path opening ourselves to finding a path to health?

I am going on faith that one day, someday, I will heal enough to try again. But for today, I am listening to the shattering, feeling out what it means to give up, to grieve bravely my loss instead of just keeping on, to allow myself to be as I was: broken. To trust, perhaps, that giving up is not a failure, but a reorientation toward ourselves. And that the dreams we most seek after are the ones that move us into ourselves, into new places of healing, even as we catch flight.

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Kimberly Brunelle George

is a writer, scholar, and teacher. She holds an M.A. from Yale Divinity School and is currently a Ph.D. student. Her research focuses on relational psychoanalysis, philosophies of the self and the “other,” structural violence, and embodied epistemologies. Her work can be found at

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Your words are laced with vulnerability & beauty. I understand this. As a competitive cheerleading coach, it also reminds me about the bigger picture. Thank you for sharing & being brave. Sending you light & security in your decision.

Kimberly - Thank you. I felt both sadness and inspiration as I read your piece. Effort has its place and its obvious rewards while stopping, even if it is just to rest, can feel like a sign of weakness. But, I have learned there is a rhythm to all things like a beating heart emptying its chambers and then filling again. Grace flows in both directions … and often in new directions. Thank you again for your writing. I hope we get to read more.

I had a shattering experience in my 20's. I am now 41, and I did not/have not "fully recovered" what was broken. It was, however, a redemptive experience for me. The person I am now is, I think, a way better person than I would have been had I not shattered. What's more, the life I have lived has been so much richer, deeper, and satisfying than the success I was headed toward in my 20's. For me, that shattering experience was also a religious experience, and so I am a person of faith today. I was an agnostic, secular humanist then, but I found that the ethics and values of that self were not up to the job of helping me integrate the loss I experienced into a possibility for the future. I think breaking or failing can be an unimaginably wonderful gift to a life, but there is no denying how much acceptance of that gift hurts nor how much it costs in terms of relationships, expectations and unrealized dreams.

"but there is no denying how much acceptance of that gift hurts nor how much it costs in terms of relationships, expectations and unrealized dreams"
SO beautifully said!! Thank you for your deep, nourishing, healing wisdom, Colleen.

Yes, thank you for these words - so needed to read them and hear them in my heart.

Such an important message. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for these words and sharing. Quitting has never sounded so beautiful as to rephrase it as releasing into the shattering~*

Challenge my thoughts and and share yours simply will earn my gratitude. Ms George, please accept my gratitude. Lao Tzu said "When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." Thank you

Thank you for sharing this. I left teaching last May. It is my calling, it is what I was meant to do and I had to put it down. I left my students and colleagues who had grown to love me and to rely on me and it hurts. They relied on me because I was a brick-- solid, unflappable, dependable, always there for everyone, but I couldnt keep it up, so I left. Who does that? I now work to support school librarians & teachers and while I don't feel the love at work like I used to, I can see that this time will be valuable for my personal growth and will nourish and strengthen me for my return to my classroom.

Right on time! Thank you so very much for this! So much for so many layers that need healing. This is perfect for contemplation.

I teach reality-based martial arts, which, the way some people practice, can be just as intense as gymnastics. But there's a clear, pragmatic goal to martial arts practice: self-defense. Hesitation can mean the difference between life and death.

Gymnastics is a sport. I see no little practical purpose to pushing children through grueling training and constant injury, like many coaches do, down the path toward skill. And I think that it speaks to a toxicity in our society, that we feel we must approach sport in this way. I feel the same way about sport martial arts.

Thank you for this beautiful reflection and perspective on striving, reckoning, grief, and hope. At 56, suffering another loss, I have found myself shattered and NEEDING to lay down my career of 30 plus years. NO simple task as I feel I am laying down my life ... but at some level, it also seems the only option. Your words met me this morning, with tremendous resonance. The beauty of our "truth" is glorious, but the path to find it or own it, is often full of despair and insecurity. With respect for sharing and belief in the process, my best to you.

What a terrific article. I too was a gymnast for many years, and I loved the sport so much that it took me many years to realize that although it did teach me many positive skills, the constant training to feel no fear or pain, to never give up and that nothing short of perfection is sufficient has influenced so many other decisions I have made in my life. Learning that giving up, letting go, and allowing ourselves to feel emotions that may not seem in line with our projected life goals is such an important lesson to learn if we want to live happy, healthy lives. For me this is a lifelong journey -- embracing and learning a new way of being-- one where happiness and enjoyment in my work and relationships along the way IS the purpose, and that if this means giving up and seeking our something that will better support me to achieve my true purpose and better develop my capacities, that is a breakthrough, not a failure. Thank you for writing this. I think the influence of our training as gymnasts on how we live our lives would make an excellent topic for a research project. I am curious whether this is something we share with other sports like perhaps ice skating, or even dance? Wouldn't it be great if we could find a new framework for training our gymnasts?

I wish you had told us how you resolved the situation. Did you quit? Was there anyone in your life who supported you in that decision?

Thank you so much for sharing, such beautiful words so eloquently spoken.
I agree with so much with what you said - and how hard it can sometimes be to quit when we are told ( or due to beliefs ) stay even when we want to leave.

I love the questions that you pose and the two last lines realy resonated with me

Thank you so much for your wise insights. Perhaps it's time to consider a gentler, kinder sports, or creative arts like dance that would be a more lovingly generative, fulfilling practice that benefits both our body-mind-heart. Gymnastics, ballet, football or any contact sport can be so damaging and dangerous for our children....and let's look at the professional athletes, gymnasts, ballet dancers who retire and how many of them have to have hip-knee replacements, how many of them become incapacitated for life, living with chronic pain, let's not go into the concussion...
What I'm trying to say is that we do need to look at our present situation and try to create a kinder, gentler society that would not only shy away from competition but it would also value cooperation, sensitivity and kindness....The brutality and the outdated mechanistic view of our body-heart-mind has to stop and re-learn how wise, gentle, sensitive and strong our bodies
can be. let's be grateful for our bodies, did we ever stop to thank our bodies for all its miraculous beauty?

I am in the middle of a shattering, healing, rebuilding phase of life right now and it was so affirming to hear your perspective. I sometimes wonder if I am taking too much time to come back into my self, to become comfortable in my life as it is. Stepping away from a life path that seemed inevitable for so long is difficult, truly shattering as you say. It is wonderful to be reminded that I am not alone and that my decision to step back and reevaluate is valid. Thank you.

Very interesting . I also like to gym .

Poignant piece of prose, thank you courageous wise loving heart! Edison tried 1000 times before he got that lightbulb to work, as the American spirit is tenacious, persistence part of our statehood, indeed capitalism resides in collective DNA. Yet, we inevitably evolve, as the shattering happens "as within, so without". Isn't true surrender the opposite of the drive we think defines us? Your teaching touched me, as I grieve a soul exhaustion beyond my heart's ability to repair, only my trust in God allows me to rise renewed. The power of our Sacre Couer provides eternal hope and the opportunity for our soul to persevere when our mind must quit.

Thank for allowing us to be something other than the 'strong' we are taught has the only value in our culture. I am limited in many profound ways from lyme disease, and struggle w/ years of 'not accomplishing'; your words right true and lovingly. Best to you and your bravery for living authentically, and being an example to all.

Beautifully put... I had a situation a couple of years ago that required I allow myself to feel, to grieve, to process the pain. In a way, I withdrew inside myself, wrapped myself in my comfort, while still being out in the world. As I look back on that time, I realize it was just what I needed to feel whole again, to navigate the uncertainty with renewed faith. Thank you, Kimberly for writing this essay!

Thank you, Kimberly, for one of the most profound pieces of writing I have experienced in a long time. My partner and I enjoy reading aloud to each other. Sometimes we take turns. Sometimes we don't. Thankfully, I volunteered to read this one. When I reached, "I have been thinking of late about the value of quitting, of giving up and saying “enough” in certain moments because we are simply hurting too much. Because we are exhausted," it was challenging for me to continue because my voice was choked with tears. By the time I finished reading, my face was wet from crying. At some point my partner embraced me, and I sobbed like I haven't in a long time. We didn't have to say anything. He knows the places your words touched me.
I am in the process of trying to find another job. This feels especially exhausting when I feel so exhausted daily. Thank you for helping me more deeply realize that I was never meant to be healthy in my current work environment. By reading your words aloud, I was able to articulate my shattered place. Thank you for being a significant part of my healing.

Dear Donna,
I was so touched to read your words this morning. Thank you for writing and sharing a bit of your story and your response. I love that you and your partner have a practice of reading aloud (I think slowing down in that way is itself a healing practice amidst this modern life). Grief is so brave. Sending you a prayer this morning, sipping my coffee, watching rain, and being filled with gratitude at the ways in which lives mysteriously touch through words on these screens.

Is a change of direction, a change of goals, really quitting? Or is it stopping one path that no longer serves our needs, to create other new paths ? How many of us have changed goals, direction, paths, and evolved towards more suitable paths? As we evolve our new paths, we bring along the strengths and skills of our past paths.... they are not lost, we have not "quit" them. We are integrating them into our future. We may eventually feel gratitude for what we learned and experienced from the past, even for the difficulties and the downsides. We mend a stronger self, even from those broken places. The current professional term for this is Post-Traumatic Growth, and Thriving. Grow. Thrive. Rebuild Again and Again. For that is Life. . .


Thank you for your willingness to explore this topic, and for your vulnerable and moving words - I was deeply touched by your story! In my experience, our "onwards and upwards" culture makes it difficult to honor and make room for loss, limits, death, "quitting," and letting things die. There is celebration and honor for the light filled parts of the cycle - spring and summer - whereas fall and winter, when things die and fall away, are shunned and tucked away. When we culturally disown these aspects of full aliveness, we internalize this as personal shame when we experience times of fear, loss, “failure” or “giving up” - as if something's wrong with us. In my own life, a 20 year journey through depression and multiple eating disorders taught me about the painful and strange beauty of shattering. Sometimes the most life affirming thing is to say no and “give up.” Through this shattering, things are born that would not have been born otherwise. One of those things is an inclusion of death and loss in the life cycle, rather than a rejection of it.