Out of Our Brokenness

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – August 8, 2010

All of us have had experiences in life that have broken us. Times when the words and actions of others made us feel bad about ourselves. Sometimes our brokenness comes from our families when we hurt each other by not loving each other well. By the thoughtless and selfish ways that people act in families when we think more about ourselves than about others. By the painful times when our families have broken apart through divorce, estrangement, and abuse. All of these experiences leave us with scars. And they sometimes leave us with scars that have us feeling less than whole, feeling not okay about who we are, or fearful of being in relationship.

I was luckier than most. I had two loving parents who did their best to give me what I needed within our chaotic and noisy family of five children. But even with this lucky start, there were ways in which I have felt hurt, lost, and broken. For me, the experiences of being moved from city to city three times while growing up was the most challenging. Each time I moved and had to start my life again in a new school, make new friends, re-define my identity was a painful and vulnerable time. I often felt alone and lost and not quite whole.

Author Elizabeth Lesser writes about being broken open in many ways in this chaotic, and hurtful world. She speaks about the ways that we are broken by the experiences we live through and learn from. As she was growing up, her feeling of brokenness began when her mother left home when she was aged five. She grew up being bounced from place to place to live. She finally came to live with her father and her stepmother where she was told that she was “too fat, that [she] was stupid and dirty” and these feelings were just confirmed by her experiences at school and church.

She says:

Over and over, we are broken on the shore of life. Our stubborn egos are knocked around, and our frightened hearts are broken open – not once, and not in predictable patterns, but in surprising ways and for as long as we live. The promise of being broken and the possibility of being opened are written into the contract of human life.(Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser)

This feeling of being “broken” is more than mere suffering which is time bound and situational. Being broken becomes a part of who we are. We can be confident, successful, and high functioning individuals, but still within us we can hide this feeling of not being “good enough,” not being quite whole because of the hurt we have taken into ourselves. We don’t have to have been abused as children to feel this way. Our tender egos can attach ourselves to this feeling simply by not receiving what we felt we deserved, unconditional love. We can have absorbed this feeling by simply watching our parents or by not being taught how to love ourselves enough.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron tells us that times when we become aware of our feelings of anger, fear, and resentment are really clear moments when we can find out where we’re stuck. In the moment of that feeling, if we find a way to be open to feeling it, as she says, “lean into it,” then we can face our fears of these feelings and accept them in our lives. Most of us run away and hide when we have these feelings. We’d rather do anything else than deal with feeling bad about ourselves or others. So, we find distractions to steer us away from feeling this.

Chodron invites us into a meditation that allows us to sit with our feelings, not get carried away by them, but simply be open to them so that we might eventually be able to let them go. Closing off to these feelings just postpones dealing with them.

Chodron tells a story about a friend who used to have nightmares. In these nightmares, she would be running away from something horrendous. But when asked what the demons looked like, she found she couldn’t describe them. She had never looked. And with this new suggestion, next time she had the dream, she found herself stopping, turning around and looking. She could describe the cartoon-like ferocious creatures with fangs and claws. But once she turned and faced them, they stopped. They looked much like silly cartoons in that they had no real way to hurt her. She could face these imaginary fears and turn them into harmless cartoons. And then she stopped having the dreams. (When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron)

Once we start to face our fears and our anger, we begin to see whether it has power over us. When we take time to acknowledge our feelings and then try to understand them, they sometimes lose their potency. We may find that the hatred and anger we carry around, we allow to become expansive and controlling in our mind, when being mindful and aware of them may diminish them.

Buddhism teaches a form of meditative practices that helps us become aware of how compassion for both ourselves and for others can help us deal with our feelings of pain and anger. Chodron describes one Buddhist practice called “maitri” which is an attitude of having sympathy for ourselves. The meditation teaches us to develop our unconditional love for ourselves as a practice for healing.

When I first read about this practice it felt odd to me. I can certainly understand loving oneself but this practice is about having compassion for oneself as a hurting and suffering individual. It talks about treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who was suffering. How you would look at your hurting friend looking at their pain with understanding and compassion. You then begin to see your pain as something you can understand, something you can befriend. Acknowledging your pain is the first step, and giving it compassion as you would a friend is the second step.

Our brokenness allows us to begin to care for ourselves in an unconditional way – in a sense of finding out how to soothe ourselves. How to find acceptance for ourselves even at our most vulnerable level. When we begin to love ourselves unconditionally, we begin to know that even our brokenness is a part of who we are and that we can live with that. That we are still whole, even though parts of ourselves are wounded.

Maitri offers us a meditation of compassion for ourselves that encompasses all our experiences in life even the most painful ones. It allows us to practice acceptance of all of the parts of our lives, knowing that while we may not be healed, we can move on. We can love again. We can stop blaming others for our difficulties and can start moving ahead as people with the realities of both pain and joy in our life history.

You know, I think all of us have moments when we feel that we don’t love ourselves because of our defects or how we think others see us. We may have gotten negative messages from our family about not being quite good enough. We feel fat, ugly, or just maybe weird – out of step with others. This is a natural condition – not always feeling okay about yourself. But imagine if you have a huge deformity on your face. Maybe a huge purple birthmark, or surgery that removed part of your jaw. That is what David Roche has. He is a minister and friend of author Anne Lamott. She describes when she first saw him in front of a group of people and how he handled it. He came right out front and told the group to ask him what happened to his face. When they asked him this out loud he described how he was born with a huge benign tumor on his face. And when surgeons tried to remove it, they left a number of large purple burn marks on his face. When they tried to remove those, they also removed part of his jaw. And he was left with what most would see as a hideous deformity.

David talks about his own process of accepting himself despite the fact that everyone he meets turns away in embarrassment or stares in horror. He says that he hated himself for a long time, until he began to see that the people turning away didn’t know him and were really turning away from their own fear at not knowing how to face him. He says that it took him a lifetime to start to believe that he was beautiful inside and that he was loveable. And once he believed that, then someone else could love him.

He says that even now, as a confident public speaker, he can only be sincere about loving himself about 80 percent of the time. He says that we all belong to the 80 percent Sincerity club. He says, “80 percent sincerity is about as good as it’s going to get. So is eighty percent compassion. So twenty percent of the time, you just get to be yourself.”

David also talks about meditating to find a place where he can accept himself, ugliness and faults and all. He insists that we are all fine just the way we are, but we need to be able to love ourselves unconditionally. He talks about “militant self-acceptance.” And when you consider David’s face, accepting ourselves as we are doesn’t seem as big a job. When David is finished with a talk, he asks the people up front if he looks different to them now that he’s done and they shake their heads in wonder. David has become a beautiful person to them, mostly because he accepts himself and offers himself with compassion to others. (Further Thoughts on Faith: Plan B, Anne Lamott)

Okay, so how do we do this? I thought about it and thought about it. And decided that we should just try it today here. Now.

So, I’m going to ask you to start thinking of a time in your life when your feelings were hurt – someone said something to you and you felt hurt. You felt stupid, or ugly, or weird, or out of step because of something you said or did and you got some kind of reaction from someone. You felt hurt. And you had a hard time accepting yourself afterwards. I want you to consider such a time.

And now I’m going to ask you to share that time with someone here. Or you can just sit quietly and think about this time, and if you don’t want to share, just shake your head if someone invites you to share.

Let’s do that for just a few minutes.

Now. I want us all to share in a meditation that allows us to offer compassion to ourselves.

So, let’s get comfortable in our seats. Grounded. Seated in a comfortable way. You can close your eyes or leave them open as you wish. But we will be focusing on a meditation that is about loving ourselves.

Let’s begin with just normal breathing and silence, focusing on our out breath for a minute.

As we breathe, begin to feel what we’re feeling as a result of the conversation about the painful experience we just shared. Identify the difficult feelings, the sadness, the pain that this experience brought us. See our pain and hurt as an object within our body. Imagine it as something real, and begin to send this object your love. Love your pain as if it were another being. Love yourself and send yourself soothing and relaxing messages of love. Let’s spend a couple of minutes just sending ourselves messages of love. Say, “You are beautiful. You are loveable. I love you.”

You are beautiful. You are loveable. I love you.

As you end your meditation, ask yourself if you can keep loving this hurt and vulnerable place in yourself. This place that needs your love.

And if you can, promise yourself that you will keep sending yourself this acceptance and this love for yourself.

So, we can stop struggling against what we feel, embrace it, look at it, understand it, and let it go. We can stop the endless struggle that we feel about ourselves. Not all the time. Maybe only 80% of the time. But that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it. To not struggle against a difficulty at least 80% of the time. I’d be happy with 50% of the time. Then 50% of the time, I could be relaxed and okay with things that didn’t go right, with bad feelings I had about myself or others. That would be an improvement – wouldn’t it?

Let’s end with a responsive reading. It’s simple. You just repeat this after each sentence, “With loving kindness, I accept myself.”

When others give me negative messages, and I feel put down and hurt –
With loving-kindness, I accept myself.

When I make a mistake and am not mindful of others.
With loving-kindness, I accept myself.

When I look at myself in the mirror and don’t like what I see.
With loving-kindness, I accept myself.

When I realize that I could be better, thinner, faster, richer, or even just more okay.
With loving-kindness, I accept myself.

With loving kindness – we can accept ourselves, give ourselves a break, wrap ourselves in loving kindness. And from that place, we can begin to accept and love others.

So may it be.