Picking up the pieces

I had the good fortune recently to speak with a woman who is both profoundly kind and deeply wise. She told me a story of working with troubled youth in a previous chapter of her career, and an exercise she would do with them. She would buy a few mismatched plates from the thrift store and hold one up for the group to admire before dashing it to the floor and shattering it.

What can you do with the pieces of this plate now, she would ask the kids. You cannot make it whole again, so what other choices do you have? Some options to consider:

Sweep up the pieces, throw them away as garbage, and never own another plate.

Sit and cry about no longer having a plate

Get angry and demand that the world give you another plate that is not broken. Fight anyone who tells you that you can’t have it.

Use the shards as weapons against yourself and others.

Try to put the pieces back together as they were and try to return the plate as closely as possible to its original condition.

Reassemble the pieces into a new plate that you like even better—perhaps in a different order than they were originally.

Or you could go out and buy, beg, borrow, steal, or make another plate.

All of us have our broken plates. Maybe we threw them to the ground ourselves by making bad choices. Or maybe somebody else, by abusing or neglecting or shaming us when we could not defend ourselves, shattered our plates for us. Or maybe it was just life that did it, through loss and change and the stuff that happens when you’re busy making other plans. We try to repair the damage done with wire and glue and string, tears and prayers, imprecations and negotiations. We eat, or drink, or party, or fight, or withdraw, or cry, in our attempts to cover up and cope with the pain. Internally or externally, and sometimes both, we scar ourselves as we brush against the broken pieces.

My plate—several of my plates—were broken by other people when I was very young, and I’ve been walking barefoot across the shards ever since. I have learned how to go forward in spite of it, but the pain and rage that have resulted have leached away so much of my energy and potential in this life. The way I have responded to the losses has been, mostly, to pout and cry that the world owes me an unbroken plate. I want my original plate back, made whole again. I want to be, in a word, made innocent again.

This is not a productive position and it has surely done me no good. What’s true is that I was born innocent and I still am, despite all my flaws and all the mistakes I have made. I refuse to see myself as damned any longer because of other people’s choices.

With the help of the woman who told me the story, I am reconsidering my options with regard to broken pieces in my life, wondering what I can make with them using what I have now, where I am now, knowing what I know now that I did not know when the shattering was done.

Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem

What I hope to do is take the materials I have at hand—including the love of all the good people (and dogs) I know—and forge myself an unbreakable heart into which the light of the universe shines and from which my own light shines back out to the world.