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

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down…

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

The following short story can be considered an epilogue, if you will, to Fill Me Up to Empty. It is the true story of Josh, an autistic-like child and his struggle to understand his chaotic life and to make a place for himself in a world which for him was both frightening and undecipherable. I highly recommend that you first acquaint yourself with Josh by reading Fill Me Up to Empty. Doing so will enable this short story to have more depth and meaning for you. –Luleen


It had been 35 years since I had last seen or heard from Josh, but the memories had not faded. From time to time I had thought of writing his story, as we had discussed when his therapy with me ended when he was twelve.

I had gone through many changes in my life, and now the time seemed right to begin work on the manuscript. I set out to find Josh and his parents, to ask if they were still interested in my writing about our time together and if so, to obtain their written permission. It took some effort, but I finally located him. I wrote Josh a letter asking if it was all right to be in touch. The telephone call came on the evening of the day he received my letter.

“Is it all right that I found you after all these years?” I asked, anxiously.

“I never stopped fantasizing that you would,” Josh said.

“I’m wondering if you’d still like me to write the story of our time together,” I said.

“Well, yes, but how would that go?”

“I’d like to share with others all the things you taught me and all the things you learned to do. Remember the list we made?”

“Yes! Do you still have that list?”

“I do. Do you remember what was the number one item on your list of things you had learned?”

Josh’s voice was exuberant. “Not stupid!” he said.

I also made contact with Josh’s mother, got the necessary permissions, and in a few months I finished the book, which I titled, Fill Me Up to Empty.

The release date for the book was three months away when I received pre-publication copies. I called Josh and his mother again and arranged to come for a visit and to give them autographed copies. I was excited about seeing Josh and his mom, but somewhat anxious as to how things would go.

My son (not yet born when initial therapy with Josh ended) knew the book was being published. Though I gave him a copy, he had expressed no interest in reading it. Growing up with parents who wrote and published had not impressed him. He had never ready my first book, Sunday Came Early This Week. When I told him that I had arranged to visit Josh he offered to make the long trip with me in order to do most of the driving, and I accepted. I looked forward to the company on the long trip. We would spend the night in a nearby hotel and my son would ‘play tourist’, while I spent several hours with Josh and his mother.

A few days before we were to leave, I received a surprising email from my son. It read: “Mom, I’ve finished Fill Me Up to Empty, and I really like it. It’s a wonderful story and Josh is a very special person. I’d like to meet him if it’s okay.”

I knew it would be.

During the long drive, my son (now an adult on a career path he enjoyed) asked probing, insightful questions about the book and about Josh. His attention had been caught in a way I had not seen before. I was pleased that something about Josh had captured a special place in my son’s heart. It renewed my faith that this book could be helpful to other readers.

When we arrived at the hotel, we checked in and then went to the lobby to wait for the arrival of Josh and his mother. I carried autographed copies of the book for them, and walked around the lobby restlessly. My son stood nearby, and made it clear that he wanted to be a part of all this. Within a few minutes the 48-year-old man I had not seen since he was twelve and his 84-year-old mother walked through the door. For a moment, time stood still. I was transported 35 years back in time, far away from my current surroundings.

My plan that my son would be introduced and then meet us later for dinner quickly evaporated as Josh’s mother invited him to go with us to see Josh’s apartment. We piled into her car, my son in the front seat, Josh and I in the back. He still had a disarmingly innocent smile and his twinkling eyes locked on my face with a familiar intensity. As we drove through town, Josh pointed out the retail store where he has been employed for 11 years. Then he spoke to my son: “Let’s see, Eric, your birthday is on October 13, 19…” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yes,” Eric said, startled. “How did you know that?”

Josh smiled. “Well,” he said, “your mother told me when we stopped seeing each other that she was pregnant and I asked her to tell me when the baby came and she called and told me just after you were born.”

“You’ve remembered this for over thirty years,” my son said, shaking his head.

We spent more than two hours at Josh’s apartment, an assisted living complex where Josh has his own bedroom but shares the apartment with three other autistic adults. They all live independently during the day, and a counselor comes in the afternoons, assists with meal preparation and evening chores/activities, then spends the night. Josh showed me his room, his reading materials, pictures of him in various activities. There was a newspaper clipping quoting comments Josh had made to a group, and Playbill of Our Town listing Josh as taking the role of Wally. He had copies of everything ready to give me.

In the living room, Josh and I sat on the couch as he brought me up to date on his life during the past 35 years. My son and Josh’s mother sat across the room, listening as the two of us quickly connected in the same intense way we had years before. We soon forgot we had an audience as we talked and laughed and shook our heads in disbelief that this conversation was taking place.

Josh told of the very tough times in his life, of the jobs gotten and lost, of misunderstandings and slights, of ridicule and rejection, of success and, finally, of his feeling that his life was more on track. He told it all in painstaking detail, with a memory for time and place and dates that amazed me. His stories were sprinkled with humor and wit, and were devoid of anger or hatred or malice. He smiled when he told about losing his job at IHOP because he did something ‘wrong’ and then later having his job offered again. Laughter accompanied another story of having been fired this time by a cleaning firm because when assigned to clean a doctor’s office he’d spent too much time reading the psychiatric books in the office, rather than cleaning. Once he’d burned a hole in an expensive office carpet because he left the vacuum cleaner turned on while he read books off a nearby bookcase.

“I think Josh would like to talk with you alone,” his mother said. Josh nodded. We agreed that we would return to the hotel, that Eric and Josh’s mother would leave Josh and me to talk in a secluded area off the lobby. We would meet at the hotel dining room for dinner.

Josh went upstairs to change his clothes and came down wearing slacks, a button-down shirt, and a beautiful blazer. He looks like Harrison Ford, I thought, as I watched him walk confidently down the stairs. I saw no trace of the 11-year-old boy who had been unable to bathe or dress himself without assistance. I wondered when the lump in my throat would go away.

We sat down in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby. Josh’s mother headed for the gift shop; my son returned to his room. Josh was sitting within inches of my face, as he did as a child, and suddenly I was back in my old office. The conversation was easy, direct, and poignant. Josh wanted to discuss with me his needs and issues as an adult, and especially his interest in seeing a new therapist. This time he wanted to see “a man who knows adults like me.” I agreed to help him find someone in his city who would be a good match for him.

“What has been the most difficult thing for you over all these years, Josh?” I asked. He didn’t hesitate. “Always being at the mercy of others,” he said. I reached out to touch his arm. “And I am concerned that I have taken up too much of my mother’s time,” he added. “She’s spent a lot of time taking care of me, and now she’s getting old…” His voice grew soft, and the twinkle left his eyes.

I talked with him about his mother as I knew her, about her commitment to him and his care, and her delight in all his progress. I told him what I truly believed: that his mother loved him beyond measure, and that she had not seen his care as a burden. I told him stories of her tenacity in getting help for him over the years. There was silence, and Josh seemed lost in thought.

Eric was the first to arrive at the restaurant. He was carrying his copy of Fill Me Up to Empty, which I had not known that he’d brought with him.

“I was hoping that you might sign this for me,” Eric (who had never sought an autograph from anyone) said. Josh’s eyes lit up. “You want me to sign your book?” he asked.

“If you would,” my son replied. I stood motionless, my heart raced, tears played around the corners of my eyes.

Josh’s mother arrived and we were seated in the main dining room of the Hilton. I remembered how I had worked with Josh, teaching him how to use utensils, and the times we had gone to cafeterias so he could practice ordering food and choosing correct silverware. Josh took a pen I offered and opened my son’s book. Carefully, he wrote the following: “Eric, Thank you for coming such a long way, just to meet me. Josh”. He handed the book back to Eric and we opened our menus.

The waitress took my order, and then turned to Josh. Josh put his linen napkin in his lap. In a clear, steady voice he ordered a full-course meal, specified how he wanted his steak cooked, chose the type of potato he wanted and selected a vegetable. He then turned to talk with me while Eric and his mother gave their orders. It was a thrilling moment. Josh was participating in casual dinner conversation, holding his own, something he could not do as a child. My son looked at me and smiled.

“I think you saved Josh’s life,” Josh’s mother said softly.

“I think you deserve much of the credit,” I replied. “You were so strong and loving and committed to Josh’s getting quality care. I have always admired what you have been able and willing to do.” Josh listened without saying anything. Then he turned to my son.

“Your full name is Eric Alan, so I’ve wondered if you are a junior.” Eric explained that he had his father’s middle name only. “But how did you know my full name?” Josh smiled. “Your mother told me when she was going to have a baby that if it was a boy she was going to name him Eric Alan, and then I saw her a couple of times about a year later and she told me she did have a boy.”

We talked a bit about Fill Me Up to Empty and Josh’s mother asked about my first book, Sunday Came Early This Week. I described it briefly, told her I would see that she got a copy of it, and mentioned that it had been compared to I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and to Dibs; In Search of Self. “Did you read Dibs? Josh asked me. “It was written by Virginia Axline.”

“That was a favorite of mine years ago,” I said. “Have you read it?”

“Well, yes I did,” Josh said. “It was very interesting. But I thought I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was the name of a song.

“I think there is a song by that name, too,” I said.

“Yes,” Josh said. “I think it was sung by somebody named Lynn Anderson, so I wondered if she was related to you.”

“Not that I know of,” I said. I was shocked that Josh could read and absorb books at this level, and that he could carry on a conversation so comfortably. We finished our meals and the waitress cleared the table and offered coffee. Our visit was coming to a close.

I turned to Josh. “I’ve been asking you so many questions, Josh, and I’m wondering if you have any questions for me before we say goodbye.”

“Well, I do have one but it’s about your son and I don’t know if it’s too personal.”

“I don’t think it will be,” I reassured him.

“Well, I’ve read a lot about children of psychologists and psychiatrists having lots of troubles and problems and I’ve just wondered what it’s been like for him having a psychologist for a mother?”

“That’s a good question,” I said with a smile. “But I guess Eric will have to answer that.”

Josh re-started his question, looking directly at Eric.

“I never thought of my mom as a psychologist while I was growing up,” Eric said. “She’s always just been my mother. I don’t think her being a psychologist was ever a problem for me.”

“I like that answer,” I said. “I’m off the hook.”

Josh smiled, “So it’s okay that I asked you that?”

“Yes, of course,” Eric said.

We said goodbye in the hotel lobby. I reminded Josh that I would do some research and find him a local therapist that would be a good match for him. I asked if I might come back for another visit. Josh and his mother seemed pleased and extended an invitation.

“Mom, Josh is incredible,” Eric said as we walked away. Overcome with emotion, I could only nod my head in agreement.

“Do you think that you will come back again?” he asked as we packed the car to begin the long journey home.

“I think that I probably will,” I responded. “Why?”

“If it’s all right, I want to come with you,” he said.

“I’d like that,” I answered.

beautiful short stories