I love Ernest Hemingway, but I think he got it wrong. In his novel A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” It’s a nice idea to think that after heartbreak or trauma, the fractured psyche heals to a stronger state than it was before. In my experience, though, that’s BS.
I am certainly not saying that humans lack resiliency. Most of us do find our way back onto our feet after a fall. Some people even develop post-traumatic growth (PTG) after their worlds are shaken. But PTG doesn’t come from a steel-reinforced mind. It comes after life caves in and smashes everything up. It’s a brave offshoot emerging from a fragile center.
Nobody wants to feel fragile. We want to imagine ourselves coming through the hard times shielded in new armor, protected from any sneak attacks that may lie ahead. But the archetypical butterfly is closer to reality. We are changed, we are transformed, we are alive, but our sturdy exoskeleton is now flanked by papery thin wings. The slightest breeze could blow us off course.
I’ve been feeling that lately. I’ve been feeling vulnerable. I have an inner voice that tells me I should be stronger than I feel. That I shouldn’t let an occasional little sucker punch knock me off my feet. But my broken places don’t feel strong. They just feel broken, and it hurts to get hit when you’re still healing.
Last month, I got a phone call that Aidan’s lab tests had come back wonky. Really wonky. The nurse on the phone sounded concerned, and my legs just gave out. Of course I was concerned that Aidan’s health was in trouble, but my reaction went beyond the situation at hand. The last days of Ethan’s life were marked, on my side, by terrifying phone calls. One after another, growing increasingly dire.
Nothing haunts me more than those calls, despite the fact that my mind has erased the words from some of them. My mind shattered and swallowed entire chunks of memory. Those broken neural pathways may never heal completely. Phone calls from medical professionals may always send me into jags of panic. I’m learning that it may have to be enough to simply acknowledge a triggering moment. Acknowledge the emotions that come up. Remember that these emotions will pass. And breathe. Just breathe into the brokenness. (Aidan, by the way, is fine. His test results are back in the normal range, and I am grateful.)
Today I’m feeling an unfamiliar but deep sense of vulnerability. I had a scary experience over the weekend. An experience that would probably leave most people shaken, but I feel that there’s an underlying broken place that was exposed.
On Saturday, I set out for a long run. When I say long, I mean 30 miles. It’s the longest training run I had to do in preparation for a 50 mile race in September. I’ve run more than 30 miles before twice, but both of those runs were on cooler days. Saturday was 85 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky. Eighty-five degrees really didn’t seem so bad. My body was acclimated to higher temperatures, and I had what I thought was plenty of water. But my body was “off” that day. I felt it early in the run. By mile 15, I was questioning whether I could keep going. At mile 18, I felt very strongly that I needed to get out of the sun, but there was no shade nearby. I should have stopped, but I pushed. I wound up passed out on a gravel driveway on a backroad in the country. I managed to call Tom and send him my location by using the voice activation on my phone. I keep going back to how lucky that was, because by that point I had lost my vision and wouldn’t have been able to dial a number or explain how to find me.
Tom located me within 10 minutes, but I had lost consciousness by then. Tom got me into his air conditioned car, and a neighbor called 911 a few minutes later. I only needed to spend a few hours in the hospital on fluids that night before my vital signs had stabilized and I could go home. I was lucky.
My brain is having a tough time holding onto how lucky I was and the fact that this story has a happy ending. What I feel is terror and anxiety. Maybe it’s normal to feel this way for a couple of days after an event like that. But it feels like there’s some other fear at the base of how I’m feeling. I sense an old broken place that I had nearly buried.
The rest of Hemingway’s quote goes on to say that if the world doesn’t break us, then it will kill us. I think that’s BS too. If we live long enough and openly enough, the world is sure to at least inflict some bruises. It may even leave us broken, and we may remain that way. But broken isn’t defeated or weak or the worst thing. We can find our way back onto our feet to live meaningful, beautiful lives with our tender broken parts.
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