Stone, Confucian Temple, Shanghai
Photograph by the author
Recent events in my life have reminded me that we need to be broken.
We believe too much in the world; and it is easy to do that. We trust the world, and we trust ourselves. This is the wrong place to put our trust, yet we do it always. It takes blow after blow for a person who wants to change before anything real can change in them.
It is heartbreaking, really, how much external suffering is necessary before any real inner suffering can begin. If a person is broken, and they are strong enough to survive it, they are lucky — there's a chance, once I realize I’m nothing, that I may develop a wish to be something. That wish will have to be inwardly directed, not outwardly, because no one can actually be anything outwardly. Our spiritual nature is, at its root, fundamentally separated from all outward things, yet it is hard to see that difference. It's essential, at the same time, that I see that difference, because I must create a strong inward connection.
I was broken down completely twice in life before anything real ever took place in me. The beginning of my life was at age 46. Up until then, I had never really lived, and I understood nothing. I was packed full of a lot of knowledge, and I had plenty of experience and clever ideas and theories, I didn't understand what it meant to be until I was destroyed for the second time. The first destruction of everything, which was my alcoholism and recovery, was just a warm-up that laid the groundwork for round two.
We need to be stripped of what we are. No one really believes that; everyone thinks that we can keep something and still become real in one way or another. Christ's admonition, that one cannot "get out" without paying the last penny, is ignored. Every single one of us is absolutely convinced we can keep that last penny in our pocket and hide it from God. It's touching and amusing, actually; how naïve can we be? We can't keep even a farthing without God noticing it. If He's merciful, He’ll arrange things so that we are completely broken — and it's then that His presence comes.
I suppose this seems cruel; but it's actually an extraordinary form of love. We are unable to see our own vanity, and we are unable to sense our egoism. When God breaks these things in this, he is helping us so much that it can't even be imagined. Without the breaking, we would always remain enslaved and imprisoned by these features.
It seems strange to me that I am so terrifically grateful for the suffering I have had in my life. I've been given the gift of understanding how valuable and useful it was; really, suffering is the most precious thing one can do, and to know this is to experience God's generosity. So the worst of fortune can be good fortune; and I never would have believed that when I was young. Perhaps my greatest blessedness consisted in how much the Lord helped me to suffer. It brought me to a completely different understanding of this question, which would have been impossible without the burdens that were laid on my shoulders.
Even so, my burdens were very light compared to some people. God is unusually merciful in this way with some of us; we cannot know why, but we must accept.
There isn't any way to put a spin on this: in the suffering that breaks me, I must actually suffer. I can't play tricks by telling myself how wonderful the suffering is at somehow turning it around as it takes place in a form of spiritual tai chi; I need to go deep into the suffering as is, not misconstruing it, but accepting it and participating in it, if it is going to have the action I needed to have. That is to say, I need to be quite wholly invested in it, keeping at the same time one part of me on a touchstone that connects with essence. I have to suffer and see it. It's that unflinching vision of my own suffering that I must swallow. It needs to be an intention of mine to suffer life as it is.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.