“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
-Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” (1992)
The last few years have been difficult for me. I have experienced family drama and estrangement, several difficult surgeries and a scary illness. All the while, I was preparing emotionally to transition from my identity as a university professor to that of full-time artist and writer.
I experience these personal challenges within a matrix of dire worldwide suffering. I grieve with my wife, colleagues and friends over the unrelenting violence against America’s black men (and let’s not forget the women, too); the implacable fear and hatred of Muslims; the cold-hearted, xenophobic exchanges about immigrants and refugees; the reinvigorated slurs against LGBT people; renewed evidence of women’s sexual vulnerability, from war zones to corporate offices; and the inexorable and multidimensional assault on our precious Earth.
All the while, I watched a vulgar and contentious presidential campaign, followed too quickly by election results and leadership punctuated by more vulgarity, braggadocio, and impetuousness.
How is it possible to face personal and communal estrangement and grief without falling into deep, paralyzing despair? How can we find hope when the world seems mean, violent, dangerous and unrelentingly cruel? As we all know, hope slips and slides. I catch it momentarily; then it drifts away, sometimes morphing into indifference, and other times, into despair.
I am comforted by a line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem”: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Those words have sustained me as I’ve drifted into the depths of personal and communal darkness. I cling to the lifeline of my art practice, because I believe that creativity is, at its core, a means of pursuing the faint traces of hope—that crack of light—in the midst of all that fails us.
I remember my beloved therapist some 30 years ago explaining to me that hope and despair—as all such binaries and absolutes—are not opposites, but merely points on a spectrum. They coexist. One is defined by the other. And neither is a permanent state of being.
I am discovering again that hopefulness will always elude me unless I allow myself to experience despair. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chödrön writes, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” If that sounds like hyperbole, it is not. It is that fear of annihilation – fear that we will not be able to survive the pain of it all – that triggers the fight or flight response.
What would happen if we neither fought nor fled? If we didn’t escape into drugs or destructive habits, or erupt in anger and punch our perceived foes?
What would happen, I wonder, if we embraced that metaphorical annihilation? And what on earth does that really look like, anyway?
In her poem, “Lead,” Mary Oliver tells of loons dying one by one in their previously safe winter harbor, for no apparent reason. The final lines explain why Oliver is driven to share such tragic news: “I tell you this/to break your heart,/by which I mean only/that it will break open and never close again/to the rest of the world.”
Our task is to meet our chaotic world with a heart permanently broken and permanently open. What we learn from staying present in our personal grief and pain can make us braver and stronger as we face communal distress. We are all broken, writes Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy, and we are connected by our brokenness. If we use the cracks and the connections to seek justice and share mercy, we will become the place “where the light gets in.”
So even when . . .
• Bullies on the world stage engage in a war of words that makes the possibility of war terrifyingly real….
• Ice caps are melting and air currents are shifting…
• Black men and women are feared, threatened and killed …
• Islam is hated and Muslims are barred from entering the U.S.…
• Hard-working immigrant families fear deportation and separation ….
• Men and women sent to war return home, if at all, with broken bodies, minds and spirits. . .
• Human beings around the world are dying from starvation, disease, drone-delivered bombs, and campaigns of extermination . . .
…we can recognize the chaos, continue our work to right the wrongs we see, and connect with others, acknowledging our brokenness in a broken but beautiful world. Be the light!