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).