Broken Wholeness

For some people, wholeness means being complete and put together. For others, wholeness equals perfection. Parker Palmer, a respected educator and life guide, speaks these words which challenge my idea of wholeness:  “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”[1]

Paradoxical, isn’t it? When I picture wholeness, I often think of it as a state of having nothing wrong with you, no life messes to deal with, your internal landscape swept clean. But Palmer’s definition allows for messes. In fact, he embraces them as a space for new growth. How can wholeness and brokenness exist together, even complement each other, in the space of one person?

We can understand this paradox when we read further on in Palmer’s writings. Palmer understands wholeness as living a life of integrity. This isn’t just living up to ethical standards – it’s much deeper than that. It means embracing the truth of your deepest self, being fully yourself in a world where it’s much easier and safer to wear a mask and play a role. But living this kind of divided life slowly saps away our passion for living and cheats the world of the gift of our selves.

So what does this have to do with brokenness? As I reflect on this question personally, I realize that brokenness is a part of who I am. In the past couple of years, I have come up time and again against the sense of being incomplete, of missing out on some important part of life. In particular, this is related to some chronic ankle pain which has kept me from fully engaging in some of my most beloved activities – dancing, taking long strolls with my husband, hiking in the woods. The fact that I am a broken, fragile, very vulnerable person/body has been unbearably intense at times.

By God’s grace, the weight of that realization has lightened and I have also made some progress toward physical and emotional healing. But this painful period of my life has left some scars – literally and figuratively. I can’t really go back to the person I was before. And while in some ways that person seemed more whole (i.e. less broken) than the person I am now, when I let the truth of Parker Palmer’s words sink in, I begin to see that, in reality, the person I was then wasn’t any more whole than the person I am now. And wholeness won’t come from wishing myself back to an earlier, simpler time.

Wholeness will emerge as I embrace my brokenness and my scars and let the truth of who I am – scars and all – speak out. I trust that offering up my broken wholeness to the world will be more life-giving and substantial than striving for a “perfect” wholeness that doesn’t exist.

Let me end with a word from Brother Roger of Taizé: “When trials arise within you or misunderstandings arrive from without, never forget that in the same wound where the pangs of anxiety are seething, creative forces are also being born. And a way opens up that leads from doubt toward trusting, from dryness to a creation.”[2]

[1] A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (2004, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 5).

[2] The Sources of Taizé (2000, GIA Publications).


Waiting for the Body

Modern medicine has stripped the body of the sanctity and mystery with which God endowed it. Instead of seeing people (body and soul) as “fearfully and wonderfully made” and knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139), we treat the people as separate from their bodies and approach the body as a machine. I have been guilty of this mindset.

When I started getting an odd pain in my left ankle a couple years ago, I initially ignored it, hoping it would resolve itself. When it continued and worsened, I went to an orthopedic doctor, who told me I had tendonitis and to wear orthotics and then to use a walking boot. When that didn’t help, I went to another doctor for a second opinion and got an MRI. This doctor concluded that my navicular bone was swollen (I know – “What??”) and prescribed physical therapy. To make a long story short, I searched left and right, up and down for the source of my pain and the solution to fix it. I tried everything short of surgery, from anti-inflammatory drugs to chiropractic adjustments to acupuncture to prolotherapy injections. The only thing I didn’t try was waiting. Actually, I was forced to wait, because the pain didn’t go away.

Looking back on the first year or so of having ankle pain, I recognize a poisonous attitude which hindered my ability to respond well to the pain. I was treating my body as if it were a car that had malfunctioned. I just wanted a mechanic to tinker around a bit, oil it up, and get it running again the way it used to. In my mind, my body was “broke.” I was dead set on doing whatever it took to “fix” it. Since it wasn’t getting fixed, I was angry and desperate – you can’t get a new body the way you can get a new car. But that’s what I thought I needed – just a replacement part, or some kind of easy tune-up.

But what if the body is not an “it”? What if it’s a “thou” (in the words of Martin Buber[1]). Flora Slosson Wuellner calls the body our life companion.[2] Our body is part of our self – a self which is made in God’s image, not just a machine to be used. Our bodies receive and register things that our conscious selves cannot. Our bodies may register the pain of a traumatic event through headaches or unusual pains, even if our conscious selves cannot bring that event up in our memory. They may manifest anxiety or stress through an outbreak of acne, or indigestion. If we stop treating the body simply as something to be fixed, but rather as a part of our self that communicates valuable knowledge about our experiences and our identity, then perhaps we would approach illness and pain in a completely different manner.

There are, of course, often legitimate physical causes for bodily ailments. For my part, I am suspicious that Cipro, an antibiotic drug in the fluoroquinolone category that I took for an infection two weeks before the pain started and which is known for causing spontaneous tendon ruptures and tendonitis (I wish my doctor had told me that!)[3] was the instigator of my ankle pain (again, another case where modern medicine does not properly honor bodily wisdom but instead intervenes with solutions that often cause more harm than good).

Even though my pain may have had a physical cause, however, I try to catch myself when I have the urge to run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying this and that treatment, looking for any possible fix. I still experiment with different treatments to try to relieve the pain and return back to my previous level of activity. But I am learning not to expect my body to always respond to treatment in a direct cause-effect, mechanistic way, nor to expect everything to suddenly be all better in two weeks. To be sure, God can work miracles, and maybe He will gift me with a quick, complete healing.

But maybe God also wants to teach me, in the midst of the pain, to wait for my body, to be gentle and patient, and to listen to this oft-ignored part of myself. I hope one day, whether the pain is gone or not, I’ll be able to truly acknowledge my body as a valuable and wise life companion whose rhythms and processes cannot fully be dissected by modern science, but rather are fearfully and wonderfully sustained by God.

[1] See Martin Buber’s book I and Thou (1958, New York: Scribner).

[2] Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies (1987, Nashville, TN: The Upper Room).

[3] For more about the dangerous effects of Cipro and similar drugs, click here and here.

Poor Bodies, Rich Bodies

When riding the green line train through Chicago to grad school last year, I would notice that as we left the downtown “Loop” business area and rattled deeper into the poverty-stricken South Side, people started looking different. Most obviously, the number of White people decreased and the number of Black people increased. By the time I reached my stop in the heart of the South Side, there were almost no non-Black people to be seen.  I also began to notice something less obvious, however, about people on the South Side – there were way more people on crutches, in wheelchairs, and missing limbs here than in the wealthier parts of the city.

This observation is, of course, only supported by my own “quick and dirty” street research.  Some other facts, however, contribute to its validity. The South Side is known for street violence. It makes sense that the bodies of the people living here would reflect this painful legacy. Also, poor people are not able to afford the same quality or amount of healthcare as wealthier people. Sadly, this lack of access to treatment results in debilitating conditions which could have been prevented. Furthermore, poor people often do not have the resources or education to make healthy eating choices. It is well known that there is more obesity among poor people, a condition which leads to a range of other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.

I found myself strangely drawn to these people on the South Side with their broken, beat-up bodies. One day, as the bus I was riding lowered to meet the curb and a wheelchair rolled on, I raised my eyes to meet the gaze of a very large boy in a wheelchair. He looked around 10 years old, but his weight was probably twice that of a grown man. Part of me wanted to look away in disgust, but the other part of me held his gaze, driven by a deeper impulse. The look on his face was heartbreaking. There was a hint of childish innocence and curiosity, but also a wistful listlessness and despondency.

The bodies of this boy and of others I encountered on the South Side profoundly unsettled me. But as I resisted the urge to turn away and ignore them, I was able to see in them something more than just the grimy and grotesque. These are the sick people for whom Jesus came to rescue! If Jesus were walking again on this earth, I am sure he would wind up in Chicago’s South Side at some point, putting his hand gently on the boy in the wheelchair’s drooping head, making up a dirt-spit plaster for the woman with the white burn scar streaking across her brown face.

Me? I recognize a bit of the Pharisee in me – the part that wants to escape to the shady streets of my quiet suburban neighborhood, where joggers with sleek, toned muscles and expensive running clothes breeze past, and where I don’t have to think about poverty and broken bodies. Yet, I am grateful for my exposure to the poor bodies on the South Side. In some ways, their scars, disfigurement, and pain seem more raw, more honest, and more ready for a Savior than the put-together, self-sufficient bodies of the wealthy. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of our bodies and seek healthcare when we need it, or that we shouldn’t work with the poor to increase their access to healthcare and their chance to lead healthy lives.  I just wonder what we as the Church could gain from simply being with the poor and being in contact with their physical brokenness, and what we lose by ignoring them.