In this episode Margi Dehlin shares an essay she recently wrote dealing with heartbreak, resilience, and intimacy entitled “Broken Open.”
The text of the poem is available below.
Broken Open, by Margi Dehlin
Louise Erdrich wrote in The Painted Drum,
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
If you are breathing, there will be something in this life—and you will be lucky if it is only one thing, that will break you open. That is BOTH the excruciatingly painful news—and the potentially wonderful news. Mind you, it rarely FEELS GOOD to be broken open. I don’t know many people who would choose it. Certainly, not me.
A Quick disclaimer. I try to be aware that I live a privileged life. It is a comfortable one, compared to most. I get that. I am aware of the state of women worldwide—the larger problems of sex trafficking, the lack of education and opportunity afforded my sex. I acknowledge openly the plight of disease, the damage of natural disasters, and the effects of poorly distributed resources that include the restricted access to basic needs like food, clean water, and a safe place to rest one’s head.
And yet, pain is pain. I still feel loss amidst this knowing. I might guess you have too. And I suspect that transitioning away from Mormonism is only part of it. What have you lost? Your identity? Friendships? Your innocence? Stability? Family relationships? Community?
Here are a few of the major losses I have felt in the past five years. And what loss has looked like in my world.
Loss looks like the gentle eyes of my father, trapped inside a body and mind that is deteriorating quickly. My Yale educated, brilliant, sensitive, and gentle father. A psychiatrist–the man who sought to understand and give hope to those exiled by mental illness. The classically-trained pianist. The former Boys Choir singer of Haverford College. The man who openly cried watching movies, reading poetry, or listening to Beethoven—now wears a diaper, can’t walk, does not know his own children, and is unable to communicate with words. The man who once studied the mind has met up with Lewy Body disease, a combination of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Loss looks like the pain that sneaks under our locked doors at night to smother the children we have tried so hard to protect. The brutality of life is no longer a distant threat but real and true. It leaves their hearts shattered and stunned. And for a time, hopeless and disconnected from themselves. Katrina Kenison writes of this loss in her memoir, Magical Journey— by Katrina Kenison
“We want to shield our children from pain, and what we get instead is life and heartache and lessons that bring us to our knees. Sooner or later, we are handed the brute, necessary curriculum of surrender. We have no choice, then, but to bow our heads and learn. We struggle to accept that our children’s destinies are not ours to write, their battles not ours to fight, their bruises not ours to bear, nor their victories ours to own or take credit for. We learn humility and how to ask for help. We learn to let go even when every fiber of our being yearns to hold on tighter. We learn that love is necessary, but that love doesn’t always save people. We learn that we can’t change someone else; we can only change ourselves. We can down fighting, or we can begin to practice acceptance. Grace comes as we loosen, at last, our white-knuckled grip on what ought to be–but even grace is not always gentle or chosen. Sometimes it arrives disguised as a burden–as loss or hurt or unwanted upheaval.”
Loss looks like marital trauma. Our marriage. The restructuring of a relationship after great tumult. We are left shaken at the core. How did we get here? Who are you? Who am I? We are left deeply wounded—our hearts and dreams strewn about in fragments.
Loss looks like the realization that we no longer belong to or feel aligned with the safe haven of the faith of our youth. Somehow by being honest and authentic, we find ourselves alone and without a tribe. Family relationships are strained and shaken. Friendships are altered. Our lives can feel like barren lands. We are like snails without our shells. Exposed. Vulnerable. Without protection.
Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser
“To be human is to be lost in the woods. None of us arrives here with clear directions from how to get from point A to point B without stumbling into the forest of confusion or catastrophe or wrongdoing. Although they are dark and dangerous, it is in the woods that we discover our strengths. We all know people who say their cancer or divorce or bankruptcy was the greatest gift of a lifetime–that until the body, or the heart, or the bank was broken, they didn’t know who they were, what they felt, or what they wanted. Before their descent into the darkness, they took more than they gave, or they were numb, or full of fear or blane or self-pity. In their most broken moments they were brought to their knees; they were humble; they were opened. And later, as they pulled the pieces back together, they discovered a clearer sense of purpose and a new passions for life. But we also know people who did not turn their misfortunes into insight, or their grief into joy. Instead, they became more bitter, more reactive, more cynical. They shut down. They went back to sleep. The Persian poet Rumi says
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you,
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we all do in times of transition–how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow. Since my first major broken-open experience–my divorce–I have been an observer and a confidante of others as they engage with the forces of their own suffering. I have made note of how fiasco and failure visit each one of us, as if they were written into the job description of being human. I have seen people crumble in times of trouble, lose their spirit, and never fully recover. I have seen others protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change until they are living a half life, safe yet stunted.
I’ve tried both ways: I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open. Both ways are difficult, but one way brings with it the gift of a lifetime. If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us–secrets about ourselves, about the nature of life, and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewable, already within us.”
Determined not to go back to sleep, but to live awake to what is real and at hand, we break open. These losses are deaths. They are to be fully mourned. And this takes time. And yet, amidst the loss–new parts of ourselves can begin to take shape and breathe with new life. They may emerge in days or weeks. Some take years to take root and grow. We must keep our eyes open for them. They are the secrets that have always been there—within us.
What are these new parts of ourselves rising up and taking shape? What are these births—these new green shoots bursting forth out of the seemingly barren land? And what do they look like in my life?
These births may look like my mother’s hands, working tirelessly to care for what is left of my father. The insight of her heart is worn freely now—as my father dies. He is the love of her life. There is no doubt about that. A nurse by profession, she bathes him, dresses him, feeds him, lifts him, wipes him, and sleeps by his side each night. My mother—who has always lived life on the go—has slowed to honor my dad in his last days. Her growing softness, open vulnerability, and bold determination have been an absolute revelation. My oldest brother—on his own rocky journey for years–has returned home. Stabilized. Bought my parents a house. Enrolled in graduate school. And works full time. He provides my mom vacations. And cares for my dad each night so my mother can sleep. Each of us—my siblings—have stepped forward to help out. We are a diverse clan but we have united in purpose—to show up for our parents, to give back. It is the birth of healing grace amidst an undignified long goodbye.
These births may wear the faces of my teenage daughters who have had to endure/are enduring their own inner reckoning with sensitive feeling hearts. Battling shame, self-doubt, ostracization, and painfully adult emotional baggage—only to emerge with a renewed sense of who they are, what they want from life, what is theirs to heal, and how to cope with that—in ways that honor them not hurt them.
These births may look like John and myself—a few years later—after months of work together—stepping forth as two fully formed humans. Together but not codependent. It has been a reconnection of hearts. A time of forgiveness. We walk with a better understanding of what our wounds are and of what friendship and intimacy mean to us. We must give it every day. It is the privilege of supporting one another to pursue a life of meaning—together and apart. To do our own work in the relationship. And partnering with unwavering devotion to show up for our children day after day.
These births may look like ME now—this face–these eyes–a rather fragile new being– created from the ashes of the religion of my youth. I gather up with a full heart what has been offered—grateful for the good. Keeping that part safe and protected. And let the rest go. Each day. Each moment. I read. I crossfit. I walk. I write. I cook fresh food. I meditate. I speak about topics I am passionate about on Mormon Transitions podcast. I am propelled forward by meaning and joy and those around me who take me by the hand and remind me, “This is what it means to be alive. We are made for this work. You are not alone.”
Our charge is to feel it all. To mourn fully. To grieve deeply. To cope well. To break open. To rebuild again and again upon what remains. To become more open. To love truly. To feel the joy of this moment. Here. Now.
We will be broken open. Parts of us will be lost. But much like in nature—after a brutal forest fire reduces a green forest to ash—there will be
new growth in the barren parts of ourselves. New births are unfolding as we speak. We will survive the tumult. We will thrive. It is part of who we are.