Thursday afternoon. The day began under blue skies, but a cloak, cool and gray, fell over the world around the lunch hour. Energy for the work week has become the last mile of a marathon –– arms no longer open to the wind, eyes fixed on the finish line, soon we will be there.
‘Hello,’ a student greets me, grinning at my office door. I’m focused on an email (always, always focused on an email), so I promise her I’m just about ready. I type a response, reading it aloud to ensure I’ve got the wording right. I set my monitor to rest, turn to her and raise my eyebrows. ‘Coffee?’
We venture to a spot nearby, place our orders at the counter –– soy latte for me, black coffee for her. By some stroke of fortune, we snag a table by the window, conversation framed like a portrait for the abundance of passersby. We dive in, and all the familiar elements emerge first: things are busy but moving, there’s a lot to get done, where’d the semester go and thank god for winter break. Suddenly, just beneath something she says, I sense pain. My mind presses me to gloss over it, move the conversation forward, but my heart digs in. So I ask her if she’s being gentle with herself. Her eyes water. The conversation swells profoundly, vibrantly human.
Soon, both of us are taking our heavy things and setting them onto the table. She describes the ways in which she’s been feeling broken, the struggle she’s felt getting everything back on track. I share a story of my own brokenness, not as a means of showing her this all will pass, but as a revelation that she is not alone. My coffee leaves rings as it disappears from the cup, a peculiar kind of timeline to two humans baring their scars.
We live in a strange age for authentic brokenness. Academically, we are deeply aware that the act of living gets heavy. Therapy is no longer viewed as a crutch for the weak, but understood as a means of mending the scars life has inflicted. Vulnerability is on everybody’s resolutions list, professed richly, quotes mined from a TedTalk. More often than not, however, when somebody asks us how we’re doing, we remain committed to tidy images, digestible updates, personal ‘bright-siding.’
If I’ve learned anything working with students, it’s that they are deeply unconvinced by words alone. I can tell a student that he needs to take time for himself, she needs to take up space and communicate what she needs to her friends, they deserve the love they’re looking for, but –– if they see me running myself to the bone, shrinking my being to appease everybody else, chasing people who do not love me well –– all of it falls hollow.
The move I’ve chewed on this idea, the more I’ve realized it extends far beyond my work with students. If I want my nieces to be gentle when themselves when they make mistakes, I’ve got to demonstrate that same gentleness with myself in the presence of their open eyes. If I want my friend to love her body, right now, regardless of what a scale is telling her, then I’ve got to work to regard my own body with warmth. I’ve got to set the worst parts of my story on the table, forgive myself for the times I fall short, trust the people around me to love me in my own days of breaking.
We can’t afford to keep our approval for these notions in the abstract. If the story we’re living contradicts the one we’re trying to share, the love we try to instill fails to resonate. We owe one another our honest-to-God breaking apart.
What breaks your bones is not the load you’re carrying / what breaks you down is all in how you carry / The Fray, ‘The Fighter’
Admit it or not, every one of us is always in some state of breaking. Walking into work, coffee in hand, we put on a fantastic performance of ‘having it together.’ In the quiet moments of each day, however, we each find time to juggle difficult things. We pause, in the morning, to study our bodies, navigating sinking feelings in the midst of even our most confident mornings. At lunch, we hear a song that reminds us of somebody we’ve lost. Our relaxing evening in becomes a dance with darkness, depression, self-doubt.
So much of what helps us carry, I think, is in remembering to be gentle with ourselves. If I’ve determined I’m out of shape, I can excoriate my reflection with sharp thoughts, embark on a run that feels like a punishment. If I make a mistake at work, I can declare myself an imposter, stay in the office well after hours to ensure I’m perceived worthwhile. Even if, upon reflection, I realize I haven’t made enough time for friends lately, I have the option to spend time declaring myself a bad friend, to reach out to friends and acknowledge I’ve been ‘trash’ lately. Our first response, I think, when we find breaks in our being, is often severe.
What happens, however, when we plant these same intentions in the soil of loving ourselves well? If, when our hands stumble onto a scar, we first take time to understand how it got there in the first place? What if, when we make plans to move forward, better and braver, we remain gentle with ourselves in the present?
These days, when I make time for a run, I try to see entire journey as an act of self-love. Let my body dictate the pace, let the journey be a love letter to the body that cradles my spirit. When I make a mistake with a friend, and I realize it, I try not to rake myself over rocky terrain. Instead, I course-correct, acknowledging one of my weaknesses just reared its head, thank my friend for loving me through that. So many times each day, we face the opportunity to regard our breaks with gentleness or severity.
We are, all of us, breaking. Our shoulders carry old griefs, stacked on top of one another despite our best efforts to shed them to the wind. In our arms, we’ve tucked away pages of self-doubt, detailed accounts (in our own handwriting) of the many ways in which we are not enough. Footsteps heavy with broken hopes, fingertips tentative with memories of old wounds. Our sternums are dotted with scars, cracks we’ve narrowly survived and sutured and worked to forget. All this is, of course, a reminder to be gentle with one another –– but that journey begins (and begins again, and again, and again) with finding gentleness for ourselves.