2014 was rough for me. I’d even describe it as my toughest year yet.
If you’ve kept up with my story (the public version) then you’re aware of a few of the challenges I’ve faced: thyroid issues, an international move, another summer of couch surfing, reintegrating the family stateside in a brand new town, living on borrowed money while starting new businesses, and writing my first book amidst the needs and demands of a large, unsettled and estrogen-heavy family.
If, however, you are one of the tiny handful in my innermost circle, you know that the aforementioned struggles comprise a mere fraction of my year’s challenges, and that the behind-the-scenes 70% or so has been too raw and personal to share.
It’s not likely I’ll ever offer that chapter of my story publicly (at least not attached to my name) but I needn’t disclose details in order to share the essence of it, and you needn’t know the details in order to relate on some level.
You see, the theme of my year was heartbreak, a subject which most of us have at least a 101-level understanding of. (I can assure you I’ve now advanced to graduate studies.)
Of course, my heart’s been badly bruised before, but I’d usually managed to shield it from direct blows by building strong walls.
This year was different. This year I had no such “protection.”
As a young girl, I learned to circumvent much of life’s pain by avoiding vulnerability at all cost. This involved a good many years of fortress construction — something I quickly found myself quite skilled at.
Spared of any deeply damaging or traumatic childhood experiences, though nonetheless wired to avoid pain of any kind (as we humans are), mine were reactions to seemingly benign and unavoidable circumstances: my sister was born when I was 18 months old and deferred a good deal of my mom’s attention from me to her (naturally), my other sister developed a serious health condition that required near-constant diligence on the part of my parents, and our Christian faith, while grounding and grace-promoting, confused me to my apparently-wretched core.
Aching to be fully seen and heard but introverted and independent by nature, I quickly learned to meet my needs alone (best I could), which meant that I came to trust my own understanding and perspectives above the counsel and good intentions of others.
My building materials of choice — those I used to protect my secretly tender heart — were ever-available and seemingly strong:
Judgment, avoidance, certainty and perfectionism.
It felt safer to form strong opinions based on astute and constant observation than to live in unending uncertainty. I managed to avoid a great deal of embarrassment by offering only the most polished parts of myself to people. I binged on silence, filled journals with misspelled preadolescent heartache and occasionally shared my dreams with the rare soul who managed to win my trust (I can count these dear people on one hand).
These tinkertoy-grade constructs served me for a good long while — well into my adulthood, in fact. They allowed me to explore the world relatively unscathed and come to learn enough about life to navigate it with relative confidence. But as I matured, and particularly during our recent four year stint abroad, my walls began to show a good bit of wear. It seemed that the price of a broadening perspective was an assault against my once-solid sense of security.
Had my curiosity and wonder not been childlike again in their strength (due to my brightly-woven, awe-inspiring surroundings), I’m quite sure I would have simply played mason — repairing and reinforcing, thicker and stronger.
But I didn’t, because I couldn’t.
My heart no longer fit within those walls.
Perfection pursuit was the first to go. The little my daughters hadn’t yet dissolved was quickly destroyed by the re-prioritization born of a first-hand perspective on poverty.
Perceived certainty suddenly felt laughably arrogant; an illusion born of first-world privilege.
Avoidance meant I’d never learn Spanish, understand the beautiful friends I’d made without words or experience the spellbinding ways of the Maya, none of which I was willing to miss out on.
Judgment, which proved my thickest wall of “protection,” crumbled quickly when I realized that if anyone was worthy of judgment, it was me, for ever having complained about anything given the frequency with which I’d been fed since birth.
At first I thought I could simply deconstruct them in my spare time, when all felt safe and I was good and ready. But staring into the blind eyes of Mayan babies while their mothers begged me for help and breathing the smoke-filled disparity between us made quick and efficient work of it.
When a heart nearly bursts from swelling, thicker walls simply mean more rubble to remove once they fall.
This past year — our last in Mexico — was the first time I’ve faced my demons, unguarded. They were just as fierce as I’d imagined and even more relentless. Many times I wanted to build a new wall, and several times I tried. But whenever my heart would expand again (as unwalled hearts tend to do often), it was obvious that walls were no longer going to work for me.
I’d tasted just enough freedom that entrapment felt like death to my soul.
This time last year, inspired by three and a half years of heart swell, demolition and a few professedly brokenhearted people who stood like lampposts along my path, I wrote myself the following note, taped it above my computer and let it lead me.
I was willing, and break open, I did. So many times, in fact, that I soon stopped counting. Just about the time I’d endured one wave of pain, another would hit, and not Caribbean-style, but west coast, Oaxacan-grade waves. It was exhausting. I’ve never worked harder.
I told the truth — to myself and to those I love — even when it hurt like hell.
I dug deep within the recesses of nearly-forgotten memories and asked them what they needed from me in order to rest in peace once and for all.
I sent love to those who’d wronged me, finally feeling that their choices were never about me.
I recognized self-abandonment at the core of my insecurities.
I sobbed and prayed and journaled and listened and found beauty where others wouldn’t or simply couldn’t.
Looking back, still sutured and sore but no longer splayed open, the single most painful year of my life was also the single most transformative.
Here are few things this past year taught me:
A strong heart is a very different thing than strong walls surrounding your heart. The only way to gain heart strength is by allowing it to expand and contract like any other muscle. Keeping it walled and leaning on your walls for strength is like depending on an arm cast for protection long after it’s needed for support in healing. Once it’s served its purpose, it must be removed and the arm rehabbed or the muscles will begin to atrophy.
The ways we come to feel safe as children are not necessarily in our best interests as adults.
We greatly underestimate our hearts’ potential, and they don’t require near the protection we believe they do. All they really needed is to be seen and heard and loved and acknowledged and held (especially by the souls they belong to) while they’re allowed and encouraged to heal.
Broken hearts are the most beautiful ones as they aren’t limited by what we decide they should contain. Joanna Macy said, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” I taped that one above my computer as a guide for this year.
Many of us have come to believe that we can’t trust our hearts to lead us. While it’s true that walled hearts are quite obstructed and must rely on windows and doors through which to see possibilities, freed hearts see potential in every direction.
Pain often runs much deeper than we know. It takes time to uncover a mess of entangled roots. Thankfully, between the work of wall deconstruction and root unearthing, our hearts get plenty of practice in expansion and contraction.
We often tell ourselves we’ve already dealt with something, then wonder why we’re still triggered or resentful. It may be that the first time around, we actually just buried it deeper; that we dug up only a portion of it, or that it healed out of alignment. Like a bone, a fresh break may be needed for proper healing.
Once our walls are down, it can take a while to discern whether we’re hearing our own hearts or the voices of others who live within our hearts. Time in silence, however uncomfortable, helps reacquaint us with our long-hushed, inner hostage.
However intentional and thorough we are in their deconstruction, walls want to regrow like weeds. For every situation in which we’ve leaned on one in the past, we can expect to be presented with an opportunity (or 50) in which to make a different choice.
- It’s often counterintuitive to stay open, as doing so means welcoming pain. Like any new exercise, it takes a while to trust the rewards to be worth the discomfort.
Yesterday, while standing in line to pick up photo prints behind an 80-something-year-old woman who seemed quite uncomfortable in her own skin, my old walls appeared out of nowhere. Bored of silently disapproving of each person in line (evident by her less-than-discrete glares of disgust), she decided to clarify her misery. Jovially, though to the amusement of no one, she ranted about “those Mexicans” whom she was tired of supporting with her tax dollars, how glad she was not to be waiting in line behind one of them and did we all realize how many of them came here to have photos taken for fake passports?
Like loyal soldiers, the very same judgement, disgust, anger and fear SHE depended on ran to my aid, threw up a makeshift fortress around my heart and stockpiled ammo, ready to war.
Boy, did I have a smart bomb (or six) to launch at that lady.
But when you’re not used to carrying them, walls feel heavy and awkward and foreign and constricting. They feel…unnatural. I breathed deeply, encouraged them back down and welcomed heartache in their place. With tears in my eyes and gratitude swelling in my throat, I let go of all I wanted to hurl at her and allowed space for a new story. It grew the whole way home:
This poor woman probably grew up her whole life gripped with fear. At 80-something years old she was still being guided by her wounded inner child. Her generation encouraged fear-based thinking. She was probably taught by those she trusted to judge things she didn’t understand. She may even fear an eternity in hell for her perceived inadequacies. What a weight her walls must be! What a burden she had to bear.
And then it hit me:
It was because of my broken heart that I had room for this woman.
She fit in through deepening cracks of compassion.
I don’t know where my mostly-healed-though-forever-broken heart will lead me, but I don’t need to know. Without walls, I can actually HEAR it again, and somehow that feels even safer than certainty.
Brokenhearted and better for it,
Photo credit goes to Jote Khalsa, who is all kinds of awesome.