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Breaking Apart or Breaking Open?

breaking apart or breaking open

Does it feel that everything is breaking and falling apart? We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has changed everything from going out to eat to how we educate our kids. Everywhere there’s images of racial violence and protests calling for social change. TV and social media bombard us with political divisiveness over issues large and small. And we hear heartbreaking stories about ecological devastation caused by hurricanes and fires on the west coast. It’s easy to describe the world as we know it and our very selves as being broken.

I know what it’s like to have your world suddenly fall apart. In June 2005, while I was at a friend’s wedding in Canada, I got a phone call from my husband at the time. He said that his boss had made him go to the ER because he was having trouble swallowing and choked at lunch. They did an MRI and it looked like he had a mass in his brain. Doctors scheduled brain surgery in 48 hours and I needed to get back home.

That was the beginning of his epic battle with a brain tumor. Nine-months later, after 10 years of marriage, he was gone and I was a widow left with two kids under the age of 3. 

This was not how life was supposed to look as a thirtysomething. Nothing in my experience before that time had prepared me for this. Everything in me longed to be able to fit the pieces back together again just the way they used to be, to go back to life as I had known it.

But sometimes that’s not possible. I know it wasn’t for me.

I was broken. Broken apart. Shattered like when my kids drop a dinner plate by accident and it breaks into a million pieces. Big pieces of what used to be were no longer there to put back into their old places, and there were no replacements to be found.

But you know what? It broke me open too. The pain and beauty of living through those nine months changed me. Instead of shattered pottery, this breaking was necessary to bring something new, like an egg shell breaking open to release a baby chick or a chrysalis breaking open to release a butterfly. 

I grieved those broken pieces, but they were something that could be left behind or reformed into the building blocks of something new and unique, like a mosaic. 

Being broken actually opened me up. It allowed me to let in new ideas about prayer and faith and the nature of the Divine. I could begin to actually feel my emotions and to ask for and allow people to help me when I needed it. I created space in my soul that would be available years later for me to begin excavating my authentic self. 

In fact, since then, every time I’ve been through a period of brokenness, it’s been some of both—breaking apart and breaking open. There are parts of me that need mending and healing and there are parts of me that are offered the opportunity to break open into new life in some way.

Instead of looking at all the things we are going through this year as devastating, maybe we can look at them as breaking us open. It feels like there’s so much more room there for growth and expansion and new possibilities for our life as a whole when we try to view it this way.

Whichever way you choose to look at your experiences influences your mindset and the choices you make about what comes next. What do you choose to see as broken apart and needing to be mended? And what do you see as broken open and ready for new life?

Because really, no matter how much brokenness each of us experiences, there is some part of us (like the baby chick) that remains whole even in the face of the broken places of our lives and that the broken places (no matter how much they hurt) are only the shell.

It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does radically shift the focus in ways that point toward hope and healing more than on brokenness. Breaking reminds us that loss can allow us to experience beauty—and give and receive love—more fully than we could before our hearts were broken open. 

The next time you face a place of brokenness in your life (an experience that’s inevitable for all of us), you have a choice about how you envision that brokenness. Will you choose to think of yourself as breaking apart or breaking open?

So I’ll leave you with a quote from the book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be. When you feel yourself breaking down, may you break open instead.”

Elizabeth Lesser

For reflection

  • What images of brokenness come most readily to mind as you think of the broken places in your life?
  • If you haven’t spent time imagining yourself as breaking open, how does that shift how you think and feel about your experience?
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