Jewish teaching includes frequent reminders of the importance of a broken-open heart, as in this Hasidic tale: A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.
– Parker J. Palmer
Oh how we want to escape our pain. Worry, loss, death, exhaustion, anxiety, Covid claustrophobia, political instability, the unraveling of our democracy, racial harm. It’s all overwhelming. We want to stitch up our protective coverings as soon as we can so our exposed and tender nerves can rest. We want the pain behind us as soon as possible.
But what if the work is to travel toward it? What if proximity to pain not distance from it is the real route to healing?
This seems to be what Parker Palmer is trying to tell us. And what our faith is tries to teach us.
Here’s what else Palmer has to say: “When the heart is supple, it can be “broken open” into a greater capacity to hold our own and the world’s pain: it happens every day. When we hold our suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.”
This doesn’t just reframe pain; it also helps us reimagine our relationship with vulnerability. Maybe vulnerability isn’t the cause of our pain but the first and needed step toward healing our pain. Maybe vulnerability isn’t so much the problem as the ticket that allows us to get on healing’s train.
This is what all the great spiritual traditions teach. Forget eliminating your pain; lean into it. Don’t run from it as fast as you can; befriend it. Hold it in your frightened hands until you realize it’s more malleable than you thought. Until you realize your strong and courageous hands can shape it, can take its sharp edges and mold them into pathways that connect you with other people’s pain, can transform it from a weapon that has wounded you into a bridge that connects you to others.
It’s then that we realize that pain can be more than a cage cutting us off from the world. It can be a tool that makes room, that carves open an entirely new space to live in. A space where we are more deeply connected to each other than we imagined possible.
This of course doesn’t mean the hurt goes away. But it does mean we end up feeling larger, and more whole. And maybe that is the most important healing of all.