The determination in her face was obvious. “I will bend, but I will not break,” she said. And with that, she burst into tears.
As I hugged her, I said, “It’s ok. You can break. In fact, I think you need to.”
She looked at me in disbelief. “You never broke. Look at you. You’re still standing, after your parents died, after your divorce, with your sister in chemo.”
“I’m still standing because I broke,” I said, gently.
Cryptic. I know I’m being cryptic. Which is annoying. But the details of her story are not mine to share. Suffice it to say she was in a situation that had gone from bad to worse. That she’d been weathering for quite some time. And about which the rest of the world was clueless.
And no, she is not a woman who habitually makes bad choices. Not a woman who creates drama. She is just like most of us—out there doing her best.
And, like most of us, she was taught that soldiering on was the admirable thing to do. You don’t give up. You don’t crumble. With your back ramrod straight, you march into whatever personal hell you’re facing and take care of business.
Only sometimes, you can’t.
Sometimes taking care of business means accepting that the only thing you can control in a situation is your response to it.
Acceptance is deceptive. It sounds passive but it isn’t. To accept something you abhor takes a lot of energy. The key is—and this is what most of us miss—it takes less energy than fighting reality.
Saying, “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK,” when you’re not, is a waste of energy.
And before you can accept what you do not want to, sometimes you have to break.
Some of the most together people I know are that way because they broke—and became stronger in the broken places. Physical muscle builds by being broken down and torn, then healing even stronger in the same place.
We are the same emotionally.
Here’s what my friend did not see. She did not see me during the five days when I was on my sofa, in my bathrobe—leaving only to drop off or pick up my kids from school—and then muddle through the time they were home so they wouldn’t worry. She did not see me go to movies alone in the afternoon so I could escape into someone else’s story for a while and forget that my mother was dying.
She did not seem me cry so hard my body shook. She did not see me angry with God, asking, “What do you want from me?” What was required, as it turns out, was surrendering. Breaking open. So the healing could start.
You may function in the world while breaking, but you handle only the basics. For me, it involved a lot of bubble baths, hot tea, books, naps—and general zoning out. Giving my mind a rest from the endless racing, the “what ifs” that occur when you’re in a bad place.
Rebuilding requires solid ground or you’re just constructing a house of cards that will fall with the first strong wind. And most of us can’t rebuild until we accept what we don’t want to accept. That a loved one is dying and we can’t ease their pain. That the person we married is somewhere we can’t reach them—and they don’t want to be reached. That despite our best efforts, life is not pretty at the moment.
Breaking happens when we’ve stuffed our own emotions for so long, we’re brittle. Or numb. And it is necessary because without complete surrender—breaking open—we keep trying to handle it all with our hopelessly inadequate human minds. Instead of accepting that something bigger than us is in charge. And we need to stop fighting what is happening—whatever it is—and just accept that life has taken a twist or turn for which we did not plan.
Some of you may read this and think that you’ve never felt that you needed to break. Good for you. Without sarcasm, I say—good for you. Your path may be a little less winding or difficult than some of your fellow travelers.
But I have a feeling most of you have—or will—experience the need for total surrender at some point in life.
Applaud it. Welcome it as best you can. Embrace the fact that it completely sucks.
And then move on.
Because you will, you know. Move on. Surrendering to what is, rather than fighting it, is the one sure ticket to forward motion.
The movie Parenthood contains one very short scene that stuck with me after watching it, even years later. Most adventurers prefer forward motion to going round and round in one place, with the scenery hopelessly static.
Here’s to all those with the courage to surrender—to experience and survive the messy, ugly bits—and then start moving again.
May we all be so brave.