I recently finished reading the amazing book titled BROKEN OPEN by Elizabeth Lesser. It was a wild ride through my emotional landscape that ultimately tapped directly into the center of my heart to see life quite differently by the end of the read. It helped me put my trials and tribulations into perspective and realize how beneficial all of these experiences are in helping me to evolve as a human being. If you are up for a read that will change your life and rock your world, you’ve got to check it out. The book is constructed of mini stories about how various people navigated the landscapes of what might seem like impossible circumstances to arrive at the lessons that were theirs to learn. One particular story keeps ringing in my psyche, so I wanted to share it here.
(as told by Elizabeth Lesser in her book, Broken Open – How Difficult Times Can Help us Grow)
Each time I lead a workshop, I get the feeling that the universe has a central casting agent who sends the full array of human personalities to the dramatic stage of the workshop. It never fails: Whenever I teach, whatever the size of the group, or the subject matter, central casting supplies a rich blend of people, including shy souls, eager beavers, shut-down resisters, true believers, complainers, mystics, pretenders, wise guys, and what I call mental cases – people who live primarily in their rational minds. There’s also a know-it-all, a class clown and a sad sack. There’s always someone whose heart has recently been broken. Central casting makes sure a couple of people who don’t want to be there are in attendance; these people keep their arms folded and their eyes fixed on the ground. And then there’s the person whom I call the WORKSHOP ANGEL – the one whose presence and story gives all of us the courage we need to return to our lives renewed. The workshop angel is always sent.
Each player is critical to the success of the workshop. We all contribute to one another’s growth. The class clown shows the shy soul how to come out of her shell, even if she must risk appearing foolish. The sad sack helps the class clown touch his deeper feelings, even if he has to descend into grief. The mental case encourages the sad sack to take a break from her feelings, while the mystic gives the mental case permission to seek out the magic hiding in the heart. No one’s presence is arbitrary, and everyone is essential.
I recently taught a three-day workshop. It was around Christmastime, at a beautiful mountain lodge by the edge of a lake. Fifty people joined me to contemplate the direction they wanted too take in the coming new year. Sure enough, within minutes of starting our retreat, I noticed that central casting had once again made sure that each human archetype was represented. As the weekend progressed, we all took our places on the stage, fulfilling the destiny of our roles.
On the second evening, we met for an hour before going to sleep. A gentle snow was beginning to fall. We had been together for two long days, during which we had shared some painful revelations and some freeing realizations. One woman had spoken often about the miseries in her life. She seemed caught in an endless cycle of anger and regret. Central casting had sent her to the workshop for her own healing, and to teach others compassion, and the ability to sit patiently with someone else’s pain without trying to fix it.
At the end of the evening session, I sensed that we had done all the work we could do for one day. I turned off the lights in the room and sat in silence, watching snowflakes drift out of the dark sky, swirl by the windows, and land lightly on the frozen lake. Something about the soft darkness, the silent settling of the snow, and the warmth of our little community allowed us to drop our defenses. A sense of deep peace gathered in the room. I was as if we had become one breathing organism, and together we were releasing a deep sigh. The angry woman began to cry. I knew this was good. I knew she needed to spin her anger into grief before any healing could begin. I said nothing, enjoying the grace of human beings allowing themselves to put down their burdens and just be.
When I turned the lights back on, an elderly woman who had said little during the workshop’s first two days rose and raised her hand, as if she were in grade school. She had a refined and almost translucent face and was dressed in a tailored blue wool suit, in contrast to the sweatpants and T-shirts most people were wearing. Her hair was tied in a soft silver bun at the back of her neck, and she was wearing a string of pearls. I sensed that the workshop angel had arrived.
“May I say something, dear?” she asked me.
“Of course, ” I said.
“I am ninety-two years old.” she chuckled. Everyone gasped. She was such an elegant and energetic woman – that no one would have correctly guessed her age.
“I am speaking to all of you, but especially to you,” she said with great warmth, acknowledging the angry woman, who was seated across the circle. “I’ve had a life of adventures and a life of losses. I’ve lost two husbands and a son. But at ninety-two, as hard as I try, i can’t find anything to be unhappy abut! I know now that all of my difficulties made me who I am supposed to be.”
Now, she leaned forward and looked straight at the angry woman. “Do you know the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, deer? He wrote a poem that ends like this: ‘In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.’ Isn’t that wonderful? Our problems are friendly! They are like hands that want to work on us. They want to make us strong. They certainly worked on me! Now, even though I am an old woman, I am stronger than ever. Every day I wake up grateful just to be alive, I can do whatever I want. I can watch birds at the feeder, or be with friends, or read, or do nothing at all. I have nothing to complain about. Nowhere to go, nothing to get. Nothing bothers me. I want to tell you, my dear, that if you get to my age, all of your problems will seem like old friends. I promise you.”
No one said a word as the woman sat back down in her chair. We were touched by her sudden gift. Some people smiled, and some had tears in their eyes, but the angry woman was unmoved. After a period of silence, she turned on the elegant old lady and demanded, “So, you mean I have to wait fifty years before I’m happy?”
“Ah, my dear,” said the workshop angel. “Don’t worry. They will be the fastest fifty years of your life.”[The end]
Cheers to embracing all that life has to offer, right now, in this moment.
As a revolutionary in the art of self-care, Shelley Hunter Hillesheim founded A Nourished Life where she is a self-care coach, published author, inspirational speaker, workshop leader, sisterhood builder and maverick for ambitious, driven women. She rescues depleted high achievers from overwhelm and helps them create the spaciousness and simplicity needed to nourish themselves with sustainable self-care habits.
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