Our Most Difficult Times Can Open Our Hearts

6 years ago

When Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser first sent me the galley of her book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow, I remember reading it during a relatively carefree time in my life and thinking to myself, "Wow, this book is really powerful. I bet it would be really helpful for someone going through some type of major life crisis." I was on the very last chapter when we got the news that my father-in-law had slipped and broken his neck on a clothing rack in his bedroom and was paralyzed from the neck down. The tumultuous months that followed of his gradual deterioration and eventual death were full of stress, fear, exhaustion and sorrow.

Since my husband often had to be at the hospital in New York City watching over his father’s care with his mother and sisters, I was frequently left to "hold the fort" at home, taking care of my two young children (who were also sad and worried about their beloved "Poppy"), doing all my work and trying to keep our lives running as best I could.

As painful and challenging a time as it was, I was so grateful I had been reading Broken Open, which reminded me I had a choice: Break open and be transformed, or resist the reality of the situation and break down. I found that by remaining open during that difficult time I discovered inner strength I never knew I had -- and it ultimately deepened my connection to life, to others, and to myself. 

The following reflections (from a diversity of wise and well known women I have had the great pleasure of interviewing) are taken from the chapters “Our Most Difficult Times Can Open Our Hearts” and “The Path of Healing” in my new book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice. I hope you find words to help comfort, guide and inspire you.


We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, “Oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away; I rose right where I’d been knocked down.” That’s how you get to know yourself. You say, “Hmm… I can get up! I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up.” That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are.

—Maya Angelou


Sometimes these blows are so severe that you just think, "Well, it’s not about whether I deserved it, it’s just that that’s what’s happening." And since that’s what’s happening, what do you do with it? So I have, as the years have gone on, really gotten to that place where I do say to myself, "Well, wow—I bet I’m going to learn something pretty amazing right here because this is so painful or this is so strange.” And that has been true!

—Alice Walker


I waited my whole life for somebody to rescue me. I waited for someone to make it better… and I created this character named Mr. Alligator who I thought would come and rescue me. I would wait for him all the time as a kid. He didn’t come. But years later, my organization, V-Day, went to Africa and we found Agnes [an African woman working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation], and we were able to give her the resources to build a safe house for girls. I went to the opening of the house, and in the midst of the celebration, I found myself walking down this path. Suddenly it was the path of my childhood. In that moment, I realized that I was no longer waiting: Mr. Alligator had finally come. Here was this beautiful safe house we had opened for girls to escape female genital mutilation. In giving that, I had healed the broken part inside myself. When you give what you need the most, you heal whatever is broken. What we are waiting for has always lived inside us.

I think what I would say to anyone is: Stop waiting. Stop retaliating. Stop living your life as if you’re going to be rescued, and give what you need the most. And you will heal and you will transform whatever pain is inside you.

Eve Ensler


Each person's healing path is unique. Don't let other people hurry you. The path is different for everybody.

Loung Ung


Life is filled with suffering of all different types… and you can't escape it—no matter who you are, it doesn't matter. Suffering is an element of life. And if you do something with it, like create something, it is a very satisfying way to cope with it.

— Margaret Cho


I became aware in my own life when going through difficult times that you really have a choice in times of crisis to break down and be broken or to break open, which means to let the shock and grief of a hard time open your heart. A door opens and you have a powerful moment in time to see how you helped create the situation you are in and to deeply learn from the experience instead of blaming or feeling like a victim. Even if your difficult time comes at you out of the blue, like cancer, even those times open your heart to the magic and power of life and give you this inner commitment to live every moment. So the people I know who have been broken open through illness, even if they had a terminal illness and died from it, lived the years left to them with much more aliveness than most people who stumble and kvetch through a long life. Because life actually is this mystery and gift, and every moment of it can be full of real, radical joy and wakefulness. And for some reason in our most difficult times, we have the best chance to wake up.

—Elizabeth Lesser


Portions of the above appeared in Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice by Marianne Schnall. Excerpted with permission from Blue Mountain Arts.

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Marianne Schnall is a widely published journalist whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets such as The Huffington Post, The Women’s Media Center, Glamour Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine and many others. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women’s web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. Her new book, based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women, is called Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice.  For more information visit http://www.daringtobeourselves.com.


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