Beyond Brokenness

Can Brokenness be Thought of as a Gift?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes.  This advice applies to things, not to people.  All of us share some degree of brokenness and how we deal with it makes all the difference in our lives, and the lives of those we touch.  Ernest Hemingway said “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.”

Many, including myself, consider brokenness as being synonymous with suffering. Types of brokenness include brokenness of the spirit, which can lead to, among other things, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Then there is the brokenness that comes from broken relationships, causing much pain and suffering.  Dr. Richard Swenson says, broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit. (On the physical level, doctors report that when a broken bone heals properly it is actually stronger at the place of the break than it was before.) 

Strong at the Broken Places by Linda T. Sanford is a classic in the literature about survivors of childhood traumas, sexual assault, physical abuse and neglect, and witnessing domestic violence.  She puts a spotlight on the severe, sometimes life-long effects these experiences can have on children and adults, leaving them scarred, broken, and vulnerable.

Sanford argues against the conventional wisdom that these children are forever doomed to being damaged goods.  She writes about those who have learned, through various paths, how to turn their hurts into assets. Think of John McCain, a prisoner of war who was tortured while in a Vietnamese prison, who came home broken and disfigured, and went on to become one of the U.S. Senate’s most effective leaders and spokespersons as well as a presidential candidate. He is not alone in the pain and suffering he has endured.  So many of our military men and women are returning from battle with unimaginable scars of mind, body, and spirit. These people are often diagnosed with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), a serious condition requiring immediate medical and psychological attention as well as a supportive community.  Not all get the help they need and deserve.  For those who do receive good care and loving support, healing and growth beyond the brokenness can occur and the survivors can become strong at the broken places.

Bryan Stevenson says that our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Stevenson, an attorney and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, suggests we are all broken by something.  We have hurt others and we have been hurt by others. Stevenson’s book is beautifully written, articulating the connection between brokenness, humanity, and compassion.   According to Stevenson, even when we are caught up in a web of brokenness we are also caught in a web of healing and mercy.

One of the gifts of brokenness is the joy of coming to know a higher Self and the happiness that can come from working to heal this wound.  (Think of the Prodigal son and the joy he experienced when he finally “came to himself,” returned home and was welcomed by a loving, forgiving father.) Many, if not all, of us have had experiences of brokenness.  Some argue that it is a necessary part of our journey.

It is through these cracks and holes at the site of our brokenness that the light shines through.  Leonard Cohen says it best in his song, Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

What kind of light?  The light of knowledge; the light of love and compassion; the light of sharing and being part of a community; the light of joy and happiness; the light of forgiveness; and the light that shines on us to help us recognize our unity, our oneness with the rest of the world. Suffering and brokenness have much to teach us and are invaluable tools for our healing if we reach out and embrace what they offer us.

We can experience this healing light and become strong in our broken places by making ourselves consciously aware that we are broken and accepting that this is part of who we are; by understanding the causes insofar as possible; by seeking help from family, friends, and sometimes a professional to gain knowledge and insight, helping to sort everything out; and through prayer, contemplation, and meditation.

There is no quick fix for healing brokenness.  It can take a long time (perhaps a lifetime) to get to the place you want to be, to live the life of freedom, joy, and serenity you want to live.  But it’s worth the effort we put in because this journey leads us to a place of unimaginably rich, life-changing happiness.

beyond brokenness

Optimism: Do you see the doughnut or the hole?

Let Your Thinking Change Your Life…

One of the classic definitions of optimism and pessimism is that the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, while the optimist sees it as half-full. Many argue that this distinction is important because it affects the way we see life and the meaning we find in it.

One of my favorite examples of optimism came when my twin godchildren were young. It was the Christmas season and there was much talk of Santa Claus. My godson said to his sister, “Don’t you think it’s strange that one person can come down all the chimneys in the world in one night?”  Without hesitation she said, “No, I don’t think it’s strange.  I think it’s amazing!”  Now an adult, she continues to maintain her optimism, in the face of several losses and disappointments.

Are optimism and positive thinking the same thing?  They are similar, but positive thinking has been described as optimism plus gratitude and happiness. Let’s look at some of the advantages of optimism as described by many researchers. Some see optimism as the key to success, helping us to gain confidence, to overcome problems, and to bring positive change to our lives. It can help us see failure as an opportunity for a new start.  Optimism does not mean that we always see puppies and rainbows, but it does help us see new opportunities.

By way of contrast, pessimism doesn’t achieve much and doesn’t have any known benefits. Pessimism can make us unusually hesitant and shy, reluctant to try new things, or seek new opportunities.

Interest in this concept is not new.  In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peal wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, a kind of how-to manual for finding happiness and fulfillment through thinking and acting positively. His book has sold over 5 million copies to date.

More recently, psychologist Martin Seligman (the “Father of Positive Psychology”) says these two ways of looking at situations are habits of thinking that can lead to very different outcomes.  According to Seligman, pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists.

On the other hand, optimists tend to do better in school, work, and extra-curricular activities. They often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, have better overall health, and may even live longer. For me, optimism is not just about feeling positive, it’s about being motivated to change.

Sherrie Bourg Carter writes about the mind-body benefits of optimism. Her suggestions include capitalizing on the power of positive thinking; daily recording of positive experiences; re-framing negative thoughts into positive ones and reducing negative language from your vocabulary; avoiding negative people and focusing on spending time with positive folks.

Your body will love you for your optimism!  Why? Because research (reported by Harvard Health Publishers) shows optimism is associated with lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and can increase your chances of living longer.  DeSylva and Kern tell us in song that a heart full of joy and gladness can banish trouble and strife.  Now, scientists tell us that such an attitude can help the heart itself.  We now know that optimism helps the heart and circulation.  It contributes positively to overall health.  Such is the power of optimism!

Some say that we are hard-wired for optimism and a sunny outlook.  Others see the influence of environment as the major contributor (nature vs. nurture).  I believe that heredity can play a part, but that changing our attitudes, our beliefs, and our outlook on life rests largely in our hands; on our early life experiences; on our willingness to let go of pessimism and embrace a positive outlook, an optimistic view of our world and our position in it.

In my years of clinical practice, I have found that optimism is one of the best predictors of successful therapy. Recently, a colleague referred a middle-aged woman to me.  After speaking with me on the phone and offering several reasons why she couldn’t commit to therapy she ended the conversation by saying, “You sound like a very nice person, but my problems can’t be fixed.”  This pessimistic attitude has kept her from finding out that her problems might well be ‘fixable’.

I doubt that McLandburgh Wilson pondered such weighty questions when he explained optimism in 1915:

“Twixt the optimist and pessimist

The difference is droll:

The optimist sees the doughnut

But the pessimist sees the hole.”

Each of us has the power to change how we view our experiences.  Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless observer in your journey, see yourself as an active participant.  You can begin flexing your optimism ‘muscle’ by being consciously aware of your current prevailing attitude. Is it negative or positive?  Each of us needs an ‘attitude adjustment’ from time to time. You can practice positive ‘self-talk’ and cutting down on negative thoughts and comments.  You can hang out with optimistic people.  Optimism is contagious!  You can practice looking for blue skies; seeing the glass half-full; and always seeing the doughnut rather than the hole. It takes some work but I am optimistic that you can do it!

personal development topics

Personal Development Topics – Climbing the Ladder of Success

One of the many personal development topics people are curious about is success. But how do we define success? How is it measured? Do we need to redefine our concept of success to be successful?

Success is one of those popular, yet loosely-defined, personal development topics. Read on to ensure you’re successfully defining your success…

Many years ago when I completed graduate school I received as a gift a coffee mug with the following message: “As you climb the ladder of success/don’t let the boys look up your dress.” At the time this was somewhat provocative to me, since I seldom wore dresses. But I did come to appreciate a quote from another unknown writer: “As you climb the ladder of success, stop occasionally to move the ladder.”  This meant something to me. It has been said that many climb the ladder of success only to find when they reach the top they have placed the ladder on the wrong ‘building’.

What constitutes success is seen differently by different people.  The concept of success changes through the various stages of life.  Children can experience success if they master certain tasks and make their parents and teachers happy.  Adolescents often measure success by the degree of independence they have achieved and the number of friends they have. Young adulthood can present a crisis of confidence as the young person faces the wider world.  During this period there is a change in what is thought of as success: money, job, education, relationships.

As we grow older the locus of success shifts from totally outside self to outside/inside self to almost totally inside.  Our view of success grows and changes as we grow and change.  Just as a snake sheds its skin to grow, we grow and change and our view of what success is has to grow and change along with us.

It is a gift if we can develop and thrive and view ourselves as successful.  Those who cannot adapt, who remain rigid and frightened, suffer.  Each developmental stage calls on us to redefine our vision and our definition of success.  As long as we live, we have the opportunity to embrace transition and transformation as a measure of success.  It is not easy.  Some of us get stuck along the way.

Some of our ideas about what constitutes success are terribly skewed.  But one element is constant: it is very personal and very subjective.  For instance, some people find success in the small daily events of life; others in great public achievements.  Some view success as mostly quantitative while others look for an inner reassuring feeling that they are on the right path; that their ‘ladder’ is propped on the ‘building’ that is right for them.

My views on success have changed over the years.  Success no longer depends on job status, salary, or how well I’m liked.  For me it now involves being the best person I can be with what I have, always reaching for the highest that is within me.

Success has to do with stretching myself and continuing to grow mentally and spiritually.  I can still set goals and try to achieve them and I can change my goals if necessary.  While I can’t predict success in reaching my goals, I can have confidence in them and trust the outcome.  I do not have to be fearful. I can enjoy surprises and happy moments along the way as I become more and more aware that I am on a spiritual journey.

personal development topics

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