Living in a Broken World

January 2014

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"I would say that it was life-altering. I feel that strongly and I don’t say that lightly because I’ve done some work – some personal growth before. I was ready to heal and I’m extremely grateful for this past weekend." – N.E., Tracking the Soul workshop participant

For the past two years, I have been working with a small band of intrepid souls to create a school-retreat called Yggdrasil. The purpose of this venture is to change people’s lives and ultimately, in a small way perhaps, the world in which we all live. As I look out into the world, I often see a culture that is broken, wounded, distorted by a rampant confusion about what is truly important, a narcissistic immaturity all too ready to substitute wishful thinking for hard work, and an institutionalized numbness in the face of monumental problems requiring the collective best that all of us together have to offer. Despite our best intentions, and the best intentions of previous generations extending back to Adam and Eve, we keep making a mess of things, and human civilization as a whole keeps slip-sliding toward the edge of self-annihilation.

As a child of the idealistic sixties’ counterculture, I often ask myself, “How could this be? Surely we must have learned something in the course of our history that can save us from ourselves?” But honestly, the answer seems to be, “No. We’re really not learning all that much.” Early on in my journey through this life, I realized that if I wanted to change the broken world – which I did and still do – I’ve got to start with myself, my own brokenness, and then help those I can with what I learn along the way. Wounded people create a wounded world, and fixing what is wrong – if such a thing is even possible – can only begin by realizing, we’re all wounded.

In my twenties, I turned simultaneously to psychology and spirituality for answers to this dilemma, and found some valuable insight in each realm, although not enough really to make a difference. Knowing where and why I was broken, I learned, is not the same as healing. Turning to the ultimate source of wholeness through my connection with Spirit, I also learned, does not absolve me of the necessity for working through my chronic wounded sense of separation from the whole. I think an intimate knowledge of psychology – particularly psychology rooted in individual choice and responsibility – and spirituality – particularly spirituality rooted in the quest for an open heart and mind – can provide solace and support for the long dark journey from blinding pain to soft light, but it is not the journey itself.

The same can be said for all forms of self-help, spiritual practice, and psychotherapeutic intervention. Tools are necessary and helpful, but they do not wield themselves. Like a woodcarver armed with hammer and chisel and a block of wood – even a skilled woodcarver – the soul armed with the tools of transformation can only carve a rough approximation of real life, inevitably shaped as much by what the soul can and cannot see as by the life that shapes the carving. The tools themselves are neutral. It is what we bring to them that matters and what we bring to them is ourselves – broken, questing for wholeness, always en route between here and some elusive horizon. All we can do is show up – with the best intention we can muster and the sharpest tools at our disposal – and chip away.

When my partner asks me what I’m doing, I often answer, “chipping away.” It is a standing joke between us, but the truth of the matter is, I’ve learned the hard way that nothing worth having or doing happens all at once. You set an intention, and then you put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you leap; sometimes you slide backwards; but with your intention to guide you, you make gradual progress, day by day, year by year, decade by decade over the course of a lifetime. If this is true for worldly pursuits, then it must surely also be true for spiritual pursuits as profound as healing the broken pieces of our lives – broken in childhood, broken perhaps in some other life, broken just because as everyman’s troubadour Bob Dylan once put it, “everything is broken.”

With such an attitude, you might think I am a pessimist. I am not. I show up every day and chip away. It’s actually a pretty meaningful existence, despite the fact that part of my brokenness is a tendency toward depression and despair.

The next post in this series is The Perpetual Quest for the Final Chip.

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