What Breaks Your Heart?
Updated: Jan 17
When we summon the strength to fight for those things that most break our heart, we are living into our life’s purpose. Those spaces that hurt to occupy - but where we dare not turn away - are exactly where we’re called…
Passion rarely leads; it is birthed from our pain.
Recently I watched about 5 minutes of a news show rant about the sorry state of this generation of college kids. “They’re coddled, incompetent snowflakes.” “Their path was snowploughed/helicoptered/lawnmowed by hapless parents.” “They’re indoctrinated with foolish ideals that fail to prepare them for the ugliness of the world.” “They’re stymied or derailed by the slightest setback…”
(we all know these are not the words I originally chose).
I recently received the parental gift of a weekend with my college aged son as he cross-country trekked back to Vermont for school. He and three of his classmates stopped for sleep, mom’s cooking and a couple nights of fun and laughter and play with Dad and little brothers. It was a poignant reminder that one of life’s great pleasures is interacting with your children as they enter that adult-ish stage – still young enough to need you in important ways, but old enough to have formed their own unique thinking and opinions about the world, and to add learning and understanding that expands mine.
As I watched the weekend unfold, though, I realized this generation may end up exceeding all expectations. I know it’s N=4, but I’m seeing and hearing similar stories in lots of places: this generation is joyous and wise and kind and resilient. This crew was gracious and generous with each other, with my Littles, and with my beloved not-my-daughter who graduates high school this year and dropped in with all her angst hanging out looking for advice and camaraderie and validation. Frankly, the insight and wisdom and kindness and resilience and decentering in the language that poured forth from these “kids” left me speechless.
Especially the resilience. They aren’t stymied. They aren’t defeated. They aren’t afraid or demoralized. They also aren’t clueless – they’ve witnessed and experienced and lived in and through some STUFF at this point. But there was none – and I mean NONE – of the anger or vitriol or discouragement. Instead, I heard: Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s going to keep being hard. What do you need? How can I help? We’ll just going to keep working and taking care of each other and moving ahead.
They left me breathless. And hope-filled.
I’ve spent much of the last 6 or so years intensively studying the multivariate ways that unmitigated toxic stress leads to embodied trauma, and the ways that embodiment impacts our interactions, health and functioning. I had no way of foreseeing that this understanding would come into the sharp focus it has this past year, but I am, as always, finding myself so very grateful that the arc of my life led me to this place.
Many of you are new to my writing and so may not know this piece of back story: When my eldest son, Joseph, was 13y he was diagnosed with high-risk, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He’s the son who dropped by on his way back to college, so you know he’s one of those kiddos who was fortunate in ways too numerous to count.
I remember really early in diagnosis telling him that because I *knew* he was going to survive leukemia, my main concern as his mother was that he come out the other side a man we both would want to know. I'm pretty sure I made the statement in a fit of pique, but it ended up being pivotal to his growth in and through the adversity of that time...
What breaks your heart? There you go: that’s your purpose.
Joseph’s purpose was birthed in the pain of his cancer diagnosis and the realization that he was going to be cut off from time in his beloved wilderness (when you’re 13, “three years of chemo” sounds a whole lot like “forever”). The pain of this reality was redoubled by the knowledge that his favorite wilderness space, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, was directly threatened by a sulfide-ore copper mine proposed within its watershed – an environmental catastrophe that couldn't be undone.
Within a month of diagnosis, Joseph had converted his pain to passion, bringing meaning and purpose to his illness. Leukemia was a terrifying thing that happened to him, and he channeled his response into a mission that helped slow and may ultimately avert destruction of 1.1 million acres of pristine wilderness and watershed. In doing so, he created a platform for hundreds of young people across the country to discover their voices and step into their power, too.
That movement – from the trauma of life-threatening cancer to aspirational, passion work – transformed the impact of his diagnosis.
There may be a lesson in that for us all right now…
Last week I wrote about the ways that stress is good for us.
Stress builds strength and increases our tolerance to future stressors in ways that are central to our health and well-being.
Adversity is good, too.
Adversity, when the proper supports are in place, strengthens us. It can enhance our creativity, our capacity for empathy, our problem-solving skills and reduce our susceptibility to becoming swamped with fear and anxiety.
Adversity transformed to aspiration changes the arc of history.
With proper supports, adversity builds our strength and our courage.
We are entering a dangerous time for those who aren’t adequately supported emotionally and psychologically.
As we slowly emerge from the acute phase of the Tridemic that has consumed the last 12 months – Covid/Racism/Distance Learning & Work – those who have been holding the front line finally have space and time to process. As the “emergency” phase winds down, the adrenaline wears off, the exhaustion settles in and the extended trauma of these times becomes embodied, we need to be acutely aware of just how much harm we may be facing in every person we encounter.
I’m seeing the fallout already. Physicians, nurses, teachers, and BIPOC colleagues across professions – the exhaustion is unquantifiable. Our current culture is maximally disruptive to the human nervous system and its need for true connection, the type of connection in which we feel heard, understood and safe. Each of us gets to choose how, and whether, we remedy that.
Dangerous times. And an opportunity.
What are the proper supports right now?
We are the proper supports.
The very best thing for a human in distress is another human. The paradox? The very WORST thing for a human in distress can be another human – it all depends on how we choose to show up.
Let's get aspirational about what we build next.
We are the proper supports.
First, we gotta slow down.
If you’re feeling untethered, ground yourself. Expect and hold space for others to show up a little untethered, too. Recognize that the story you’re telling yourself is not complete. Hold space for others to add to that story.
Slow down more. We aren’t going to “fix” much of anything this month, but we sure as hell can break each other if we force it.
Slow down even more. We probably aren’t going to fix it all this year. Maybe this is an opportunity to get really aspirational about what we rebuild. Systems that were cracked are now broken: can we envision and create something better?
The last 12 months revealed the best and worst of us. The worst got top billing. The best is bubbling up all around us if we pay attention. Let it. Slow down. Listen. Let people tell you the truth of their lives as they are experiencing it without judgement. Share the truth of yours with vulnerability. Recognize when you’re activated and reacting from a place of harm. Remember that nearly everyone around you may be, too.
Everyone is harmed. Everyone is tired. This is a time for us to apply 360° “trauma-precautions” in every encounter, up/down/vertical or casual – with our boss, our colleagues, our kids, our friends, our acquaintances, and the stranger in the store…
Tomorrow is March 1st, the one-year anniversary of the month we all learned, finally, that safety is an illusion. May we emerge also having realized that our fates are inexorably and beautifully entwined. We belong to one another; if we accept that responsibility we can begin again.
A meaningful life isn’t just about what we want, it’s about what we give.
Days are getting longer and warmer (yes, I know it’s a trick. I choose the lie). Please get outside and breathe deeply. Stretch and move a lot (man, we haven’t done enough of that!). Play and laugh and connect with someone who loves you.
Chocolating is now optional (but still recommended).
Vaccinate as soon as you’re able – it protects you and others. Each day brings us closer to spring and closer to open. It really is all coming.
Stay kind, brave and hopeful.