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Living Life Well

Living Life Well

By Jim Shere

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart.” So wrote Louise Erdrich in her book The Painted Drum. I agree — we are breaking. And we should be.

A man recently returned to talk with me several years after a painful divorce, which his wife had demanded and he had manfully resisted for as long as possible. He told me that his parents had divorced when he was a child and that it had broken his heart — and so he hadn’t wanted it broken a second time. “How was I to know,” he asked, “that the second time my heart would break, it would break open?”

There are those of us who would be stouthearted champions, who would stand in resistance to becoming broken, attempting to control nature rather than acknowledge her implacable presence — and yet who will still, eventually, be broken. Attempts at remaining in control inevitably invite unintended consequences, among them the overwhelming uprising of what they had repressed — the galvanized and galvanizing force of nature.

We have always believed that existence is shaped by two opposing forces, reducing the complexity of existence to something we can bend our human minds around. Man the Measurer is how I think about it — homo mensor — and sadly enough many still cling to confusing the measure of a thing with the thing being measured, losing sight of the subtler and more true qualities of things. The ancient Confucian symbol taijitu classically demonstrates the two opposing yet mutually defining dynamics we know as yin and yang, and still the idea of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object ignites many philosophical debates.

Furthermore, there are two ways this duality that we invent can play out, depending upon the attitude that we hold — we can believe they will coordinate, and we can believe they will conflict. My two hands can work together or they can get in the way of one another, and my two eyes can see something one can never see alone: depth — but only if they work together. There is always the optimism that believes healing is an ongoing natural process, and there is always the cynicism that refuses to believe it.

In the world of politics, democracies may seem at first not to be as efficient as autocracies; yet history has shown that societies flourish under an engaged and cooperative democracy — and begin to struggle when autocratic voices begin to be heard, stirring contention and establishing warring factions. I believe that we entered into such a season some time ago, when the cynicism of certain politicians roused the mistrust latent within many people and weaponized their courage. Peaceful discussion has all too often become replaced by criticism, contention, and outright conflict.

And yet I know there is another way. The shattering of the naive delusion that we can all just somehow get along together (the childhood fairy tale reads “once upon a time we all lived happily ever after”) does not require dystopian pessimism — yet there is another way, though it is difficult and requires stepping out of the box of assumptions into the larger perspective that can discover the sort of work that must lie ahead. My fellow with the broken heart finally recognized this, after he had let go of his attachment to the way things had been before divorcing.

I wrote a few years ago about the legendary 15th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who established the craft of Kintsukuroi, or “golden repair,” when he had a broken teacup repaired with a special lacquer infused with powdered gold. The seams of the precious metal, glinting from the mended cracks in the clay vessel, made a thing of beauty out of what had once been thought to be permanently damaged. The insight that this special mending transformed brokenness into something useful, even appealing, was realized through the effort of a craftsmanship that changed everything.

The effort of such craftsmanship — in this case, statesmanship — can be seen in the work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa at the end of the oppressive history of apartheid. This commission was authorized by president Nelson Mandela and chaired by Desmond Tutu, Anglican bishop of Cape Town, to rectify the inequities codified within the culture of that time. The commission invited victims of human rights violations to testify at several public hearings,and granted amnesty to those who had committed abuses under the principles of Restorative Justice, in which crimes were acknowledged with real remorse for the damage done.

We now need such a great and thorough reckoning in our own country, and in our world, but first there needs to be the public acknowledgement that would make this even possible — an acknowledgement that things are indeed broken. The admission would have to transcend all the polarizations, all the divisions of religious principles and party politics, to acknowledge the evils and stupidities that have flourished on each side of the aisle. Until then each side will continue to blame the other for perpetuating their division, procrastinating upon any resolution.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, well known for the romantic Sonnets from the Portuguese she wrote for her husband Robert Browning, also wrote a biting poem about America titled “A Curse for a Nation” during the roiling mid-19thcentury years. It includes these lines:

When ye boast your own charters kept true, Ye shall blush; for the thing which ye do Derides what ye are.

Her stirring and still relevant poem is available in its entirety at EBrowning_Curse.pdf. At once feminist and abolitionist, she spoke to the day and beyond against the oligarchs and hypocrisies of the time, and for the peoples that always and still struggle to throw off tyranny — to this day in Ukraine, Iran, Burma, and sadly many, many other places distant and quite near.

Yes, we are broken. It is important to let this be true, so that our disparate, diverse shards may rise and join again, in a new and mending way. Have the courage to be changed by your tragedies,and to be healed by what you are willing to learn.