Wholeness, Hospitality and Broken Hearts

The possibility of wholeness grows out of a broken place.


Becoming people who offer hospitality to strangers requires us to open our hearts time and again to the tension created by our fear of “the other.” That is why many wisdom traditions highlight the creative possibilities of a heart broken open instead of apart. Only from such a heart can hospitality flow–toward the stranger and toward all that we find alien and unsettling. – Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy

Where do we hold the space in our transactional world for a real, live broken heart? How do we allow our well-curated online and real-time personas to feel pain, sadness, failure and shame? Where does all the disappointment go?

I try to acknowledge the fact that suffering is alive and well, an active part of our day to day lives. It’s just being human. The myth that suffering doesn’t exist, or that we always need to put up a good front embracing false positivity, simply sends the unpleasantness underground. Then like all forces under pressure, it manifests itself violently, as aggression, isolation and depression.

In every workplace, home and school, our hearts get broken all the time. We don’t always meet the expectations game, and that makes some people angry (or my favorite hospitality word: hangry = hungry + angry, the state of incoming guests who have put off a meal for too long). Some days the nonsense can just bounce right off, but other days it comes as a real shock and settles in to a deeper place. It’s more hurtful, more personal, more painful.

We can laugh it off. “Well, that’s how people are. We can’t control everyone’s behavior.” And that’s true. But what I find really helpful is to acknowledge it to myself: “Wow, that was really hurtful.” If a colleague tells me something ungenerous that someone says, I don’t try to dismiss, but instead to sit with it for a second. “Yeah, that was kind of mean. What can I do to help?” Or the reverse is also true. “Can you help that guest over there? I don’t think I can show up as my best self right now. I need a minute.”

A heart needs to be a supple thing. If it tries to control the outcome, operates solely from the ego’s point of view, or lives in unawareness, it will surely be shattered. Living with a broken heart isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that the heart is in a million pieces, it’s just a little more open than it was before. We know this because sometimes things feel more acutely. We may become more defensive and inward.

Yet there are “creative possibilities” available when the heart breaks open. I think the most valuable is acknowledging that hurtful language, conduct and experiences are real. They have a sincere effect on us. To ignore that means the heart gets more brittle, not supple. My heart often wants to clamp down and go into survival mode. Accepting the realness of suffering reminds me that I don’t have to do that. I can instead be thoughtfully exposed, ready for something new.

The stranger that Parker Palmer talks about can take so many different forms. The stranger may not be a guest or a client or a customer, he’s also often a colleague, a friend, a spouse, or even an idea or new context. Our reaction to pain is avoidance – just watch your hand snap away from a hot burner. That’s the opposite of engagement. Real engagement is, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.”

Everyday there is a stranger who is experiencing pain herself, ready to share that pain in sometimes thoughtful and other times thoughtless ways. Be ready. Be a rebel. Let your heart break open.

IMAGE: Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park


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