Not long ago I was sitting on my porch and saw my neighbour drive off with a cup of coffee on his roof. It was actually surprising how far he made it before it slid off and hit the road. Watching it slide around and knowing what was coming pulled something from deep within me.
Some days life feels as precarious as that cup of coffee, doesn’t it?
But that doesn’t quite capture it. Existence feels more like a glass vase sitting on the roof of a moving car….waiting for life to turn or hit the breaks too hard…
Life is so fragile.
No matter how many firewalls we put in place, we can never really escape how terribly vulnerable we are as humans. Sometimes I think the astonishing ability we techno-savy citizens of the 21st century have to create a sense of protection for ourselves can actually make things worse. We can become so accustomed to being able to ward off dangers and keep ourselves safe that we began to foster an illusion of invulnerability. The more capacity I have to be “careful” by anticipating danger and avoiding it, the more I feed the fiction that I can escape the problems that haunt all of us: suffering, loss, death, tragedy, scarcity, and pain.
I convince myself that surely there must be some way of applying enough money, rational thinking, forecasting, or consulting the right experts to avert these terrible givens of living a human life? I want to prevent them. Am I the only one who frets when technology is no longer able to provide the sense of mastery I expect to have over the world? What happens when Google has no answers to my questions? How do I navigate when the GPS signal is lost? What if medical science has no effective treatment for the condition I have?
I despise this glass-vase on a roof-top vulnerability. I want to be like a Kevlar canoe tied firmly to the top of a powerful SUV. I want adventure, but on my own terms. I want risk, but only the ones I’ve calculated and chosen. I want to imagine myself as something that might get a little inclement weather from time to time, but still be able to trust that I will remain anchored and fundamentally unaltered by the journey.
I don’t want to be a little piece of fragile glass sliding around, waiting for the inevitable crash.
I don’t want to wait for the next phone call bringing news of some new tragedy. I don’t want to be shattered by the next life altering event that strips away what I feel I’ve worked so hard for. I don’t want to remember that death will take all of it away eventually, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I want to be: unbreakable; secure; impermeable.
But life doesn’t work that way does it?
We may have periods of smooth sailing where we can tell ourselves that everything is going to be just fine. We might buy myths like: if you just do what’s right and work hard, your life will turn out alright. Which is fine, until we take a corner a little too fast, or something jumps in front of us causing us to hit the breaks, or when out of nowhere we get hit by something…
We can tell ourselves that somehow we are different, that “those kinds of things” only happen to other people. But someday, even the most fortunate of us have our illusions of invulnerability shattered. And then we realize that we really are more like a vase riding on the roof – with nothing to tether us or keep us from sliding off.
There’s nothing quite like the sensation of falling is there? Especially when you know that pain and suffering are coming. Sometimes we hit the ground and shatter, broken into a million pieces that could never be put back together. Sometimes it’s just a chip or a crack, or even the miraculous landing that finds us physically unscathed. But once the illusions of our invulnerability are ruined, life readily becomes a journey compromised by fear and anxiety.
And so we go looking for answers. Something that will help us feel tethered, secure, or protected. Occasionally we can piece things back together with a little glue from mainstream culture: keep busy and keep consuming. Or maybe we turn to something a little more prescriptive like organized religion; to give us the framework we need to restore our sense of things holding together and making sense.
But what if those old answers were shattered in our fall? What if the world views and assumptions and beliefs were broken just as badly as we were when we hit the ground? What if going back or putting the pieces back together – just as they were – is no longer an option?
There are of course no simple answers to be found. And sometimes our grasping at answers too quickly because of the pain we’re in, causes us to miss out on a vitally important life experience – engaging suffering and vulnerability.
My patients, who are perhaps my greatest teachers of life, have shown me repeatedly this remarkable truth: that being broken can be good for us. Not enjoyable or desirable, but ultimately beneficial. This most peculiar insight stems from the pattern I’ve been shown that not only can we be reintegrated into a new thing, but that the process of being shattered and reintegrated can be good for us and good for the world.
Perhaps this is why I love mosaics so much. They testify to the possibility that we, with all of our broken pieces can be made into something beautiful even if we can’t be put back together in our original forms.
Some of you reading this may have recently gone through a devastating loss or change, and perhaps it’s too soon for you to process this idea. If you’re up to your ankles in shit right now, feel free click somewhere else and leave this be for a while.
But if you have enough distance from your last sliding off the roof and falling apart experience it might help you to know that you’re part of a common human journey of vulnerability, catastrophe, destruction, and rebirth. There are echoes of this story throughout all human cultures and the stories they tell.
What we learn from our wise ancestors is that our vulnerability is so often about grasping and clinging to things that cannot be held onto in the first place. We want things to stay the same, but they cannot. Even though we long to be anchored or have our worlds held together and protected, the best we can accomplish are illusions of permanence and safety. Perhaps these are necessary for humans to survive or have any level of peace in a world where we are so conscious and being continually reminded of all the danger that lurk out there? But maybe when we are shattered we can also learn to not rush to put everything back together too quickly and instead embrace this terrifying vulnerability by appreciating our tiny role in an enormous universe.
The ancients had stories – not of denial of vulnerability – but which placed vulnerability in its grander, truer context. By contrast, most of the stories you and I are immersed in are stories of either denial that ultimate vulnerability exists or immunity to its effects. We desperately need stories (believable ones that don’t require us to ignore what science tells us about the world) that help us to remember that human life is an ongoing process of decay and renewal; death and rebirth; destruction and re-creation.
We slip and slide. We fall. But we are also re-made from the shattered fragments of our lives.