The Beauty in Brokenness

Late last fall, as I looked around my classroom, I suddenly realized two things about my students. (Naturally, neither had to do with the topic we were discussing). First, I realized that every single student in that room expected to get married. Second, I realized that none of them expected to get divorced. Statistically, of course, the chance that every student present was right about both these expectations was slim to non-existent. What struck me most, however, wasn’t their obliviousness to statistical probability: it was the fact that, twelve years ago, I had sat in exactly the same classroom (at one of those very desks, as a matter of fact), firmly believing both of those things myself.

I was right about the first expectation. I got married two months after I graduated from Calvin College. Four weeks later, we headed off in the sunrise of wedded bliss for Ithaca, New York, where I started grad school. At Cornell I found that my fourteen years of Christian schooling and four years at a Christian college stood me in good stead: I felt strongly grounded, and my faith–as well as being married to a nonphilosopher– helped keep my graduate Broken work in perspective, at least most of the time. Like anyone else, of course, I had my ups and downs, but nothing monumental or earth-shaking. I felt increasingly affirmed in my choice of vocation; when my husband and I had a child four years in, it was yet another blessing, and I was deeply excited about the future God had in store for us.

Three years later, however, things had changed completely. I was separated from my husband and in the process of getting a divorce: in a fundamental way, my life had fallen apart. I had finished my dissertation and was teaching full-time; my son was learning to ride a bike and starting to read. Still, all of that seemed inconsequential in light of the fact that my marriage had ended. I don’t need to go into detail about what happened: anyone who’s gone through the process knows the story all too intimately, and those who haven’t probably will not resonate to a simple description of events. In any case, the details aren’t important– the consequences are what matters.

People who meet me now are often surprised to discover that I’m divorced. A year ago, someone even told me that he had assumed I must have been widowed at an early age, because I didn’t seem “the type” to be divorced. On the one hand, I suppose I’m pleased not to seem like the sort who marries casually and divorces at whim. On the other hand, it’s painful to think that the immediate assumption many people will make about me simply on the basis of my marital status is that I am that sort of person. When people–especially at a place like Calvin–find out that I have a son, they often ask me what my husband does, and I have to confess that it’s tempting just to tell them what my ex-husband does currently or to change the subject suddenly by knocking over my coffee cup.

If someone asks about my husband and I do tell them I’m divorced, I tend to feel awkward or defensive about it. I also have to fight down an impulse to go on immediately to justify the decision. I want to make sure people understand the agony that led to my divorce, to let them know that it was the “acceptable” kind of divorce even in the Reformed community–the kind no rational person has a problem with once the circumstances are clear. A friend of mine once compared it to her cousin’s situation: a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in the ’80s, he feels the need to explain to people that he got AIDS the “good” way.

Now, part of the impulse I feel to justify my divorce stems from a natural desire not to have people judge me too harshly. But a large part of that impulse stems from shame. Every time I tell another person that I’m divorced, it feels like admitting to failure right up front.   A year ago, someone told me that he had assumed I must have been widowed at an early age because I didn’t seem “the type” to be divorced.  In fact, I’m ashamed to be divorced because it does means that I failed, and at one venture that was more important to me than anything else has ever been. The fact that it’s a rather public failure, the kind people can discover five minutes after meeting me, just compounds the issue. I know that I did everything I could to fix things, but that doesn’t really help; in some ways, it makes matters worse. I put everything I had into solving the problem, and I still didn’t succeed. I had never encountered a situation before where I couldn’t make things better by trying harder, by sheer force of will and prodigious effort, and it broke me.

I’ll say that again, because I don’t think we Reformed Christians make this admission often enough. It broke me. I remember rocking back and forth on my couch, in so much pain that I couldn’t even cry and could hardly breathe. I knew that God loved me, and I still firmly believed that God works all things for good–but I noticed for the first time that that Bible passage says nothing about God’s timetable, and it occurred to me that perhaps I’d have to wait until the afterlife to experience the good that God had in store for me.

I was wrong, of course. God doesn’t withhold goodness or grace the way we withhold Christmas presents from our children, gently ignoring their pleas and waiting for the right day to hand them their gifts. God uses any excuse available to lavish us with gifts of grace and peace; we just have to be open to receiving them. In my case, I figured this out in (of all places) a church service, during a sermon that seemed gift-wrapped especially for me. I don’t remember her exact words any longer, but I do remember the pastor telling us that, in the same way that sharks die if they don’t keep moving through the water, so we die spiritually if we don’t keep moving forward. I realized in that moment that I had been trying to hold myself still–out of fear, out of a misguided sense of loyalty to my spouse, out of anger and pain–and that it was killing me spiritually. And so it was that, on a brilliantly clear Sunday morning in August of 2000, long before my external circumstances improved at all, something miraculously changed in my life. I finally let go. I was still broken. My life was still shattered. Yet, I came to realize that, on some fundamental level, this wasn’t the whole of the story. In fact, it wasn’t even close. As we walked out of the service, I knew for the first time in almost two years–knew with the kind of knowing that you feel in your bones–that no matter how bad things got (and there was a strong chance they were going to get worse before they got better), everything was going to be OK. When my two year-old son wrapped his arms around my neck on the way to the parking lot, they were the arms of God. Nothing in my life, before or since, has been as great a gift as that moment.

My life now is a life of grace, and it’s a much better, deeper, and richer life for that. That, to me, is the beauty in brokenness. When our darkest fears come true, when all our defenses fail and we’re brought low, God can become the very air we breathe.   We can communicate that joy only if we’re also willing to communicate our brokenness.  When we open ourselves to grace, we can experience moments of sheer joy in the face of hell. And when our lives level out again and we’re no longer living moment to moment, second to second, we can bring that joy back to share with others.

The catch–and it’s a big one–is that we can communicate that joy only if we’re also willing to communicate our brokenness. That’s not such an easy thing to do, especially in Reformed circles where success is seen as the righteous result of hard
work, and failure as a divine sign to work harder. I believe that one of the greatest strengths of the Reformed community is its emphasis on acting as agents of renewal in a broken world. We don’t just talk the talk, either: I’m constantly humbled by the effort my students, colleagues, and friends put into meaningful social and political change at both the local and the global levels. I also believe, however, that one of the greatest weaknesses of Reformed people lies in their tendency to see the broken world as “out there” and to regard agents of renewal as an already- perfected part of God’s kingdom. We might wave our hands at the fact that we Christians are fallen people, too; yet, when the serious talk of redemption begins, it becomes clear very quickly that “they” are the people who need our help–you know, non- Christians in inner cities or third-world countries, not the Christian drinking black coffee across the table from you.

In fact, now that I’m “back on my feet” I have to admit that it’s very tempting to relax into this pleasant illusion. It’s easy enough in many ways for me to smooth over what my life used to be like. I tend to avoid the word “ex-husband” the way some people avoid the word “feminist”–as though it carries with it unpleasant connotations that are out of place, better hidden. It’s the sort of word that usually makes people (including me) uncomfortable and fidgety. It’s much simpler, much nicer, really, to show off the ways in which I’m doing quite well than it is to bring up dark and painful realities.

Many of my students feel the same need to pretend perfection. One of the most honest– and, not surprisingly, best–class discussions I’ve witnessed took place when a few students started talking about the pressure they felt to portray themselves as Christians free from doubt or worry.   Cracks aren’t just how light gets in to us in our misery and darkness it’s how light shines through us to other people.  One of them even mentioned a bumper sticker she’d seen in front of the dorms, a sticker that’s always made me want to take the owner of the car out for coffee and a long talk. White letters spell out “My life before Jesus” next to a sad face on brown and black splotches; then yellow letters chirp “My life after Jesus!” next to a happy face with rainbows and flowers in the background. I don’t know what brand of Christianity that bumper sticker is selling, but I don’t want it. It’s simply not true that belief in Christ turns all your frowns upside down, and beating people over the head with the idea that it does simply compounds already painful struggles with guilt and shame.

I used to absolutely hate the idea of being divorced, in part because it carried with it that unspeakable burden of guilt and shame. The week before the divorce was finalized I even harbored a tiny, terrible wish that my husband would die (quickly and painlessly!) in a car accident so that I could be widowed instead of divorced. It just sounds so much less sordid. I don’t care that roughly half of the marriages in the United States end in divorce–mine wasn’t supposed to. This was not part of my life plan.

It still isn’t. But it is part of my life, and it doesn’t need to change for me to become the person God wants me to be. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that we don’t really have control over our own lives. We fight and fret and rage, we weep and beg and try again, but for all our efforts we simply can’t control people and events outside ourselves. I’m not living the life I thought I would–I’m certainly not living the life I had planned–but that doesn’t keep me from responding to God’s call at least as well as I could have in the life I had idealized. God doesn’t call us to live perfect, bright, shiny lives. All God asks of us is to live in grace with honesty and integrity.

There’s a reason even beyond simple honesty for Christians not to cover up our brokenness, however. Our failures and heartaches provide God powerful ways through which we can reach out to hurting people around us–all the hurting people around us, not just the heroin addicts and the migrant workers. Over the last four years, I have myself been comforted to find that sharing my own struggles and brokenness can comfort and encourage others. I have a friend from church who recently went through a painful separation from her spouse. When she talked about the confusion, loneliness, and desperate hope she suffered, I could listen; when I said, “I know, sweetie.” she could trust that I really did. And when I told her it would hurt like crazy for a really long time but that it would get better, she could believe me. The people who have helped me most, too, are the people who are willing to admit to their exhaustion and their anger as well as to their triumphs and strengths.

In the Overture to Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott quotes a Leonard Cohen song: “There are cracks, cracks, in everything, that’s how the light gets in” (40). I loved that line the first time I read it, sleepless at 2:00 A.M., with my life falling apart around me. Over the last four years, however, I’ve come to appreciate that thought in an even deeper way. Cracks aren’t just how light gets in to us in our misery and darkness– it’s how light shines through us to other people. My life is not held together with brick and mortar; I gave up on that project long ago, thank God! My life is held together now with translucent crazy glue, and when I cover up the cracks of my life, I cover up the light that shines through them.

I may not exactly wear my brokenness on my sleeve these days, but it’s there, right under the cuff. It doesn’t show when I’m not moving. It doesn’t show when I’ve got my arms clasped safely in front of me. But it does show every time I reach out my hands.

Christina Van Dyke is assistant professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.