We all enter times when mind, body, and spirit feel aligned. Today is like that for me, and I’m finding it instructive to look at what lends me peace. It comes down to this: right now I am able to embrace myself exactly as I find myself. My scars no longer repulse me; my skills no longer impress me. Suffering neither deflation nor inflation, I see myself as a human being like all others, at once ill and well, simultaneously wounded and healed.
My current sense of ease grew out of a retreat provided for the staff of the yoga institute where I teach human biology, from which I returned some nights ago. To spend time with people I respect and love, and to feel their support in return, felt restorative. In such a safe context I found the freedom to release–at least for a time–attempts to improve my personality. My inner critic settled down, so that rather than standing on a soapbox and screaming through a megaphone every time I ‘said the wrong thing’ or ‘talked too much’ or ‘acted like a know-it-all,’ it merely squatted in the background, clucking under its breath.
It isn’t that I believed my behavior flawless. There were indeed times I acted in clumsy, self-involved, and overbearing ways. But I felt ready to accept my edgy quirks, to see them as imperfections that–taken together with my softer qualities–create the weave of my character. It helped to recognize that impulsive remarks, nervous volubility, and intellectual posturing are all drawn from the same skein: my sense of insecurity in the world. Having been conditioned in childhood to feel threatened, my default is to behave defensively. In complex social environments, my practiced strategies deploy. I rely on well-developed verbal and analytical skills; stories and opinions pour out of my mouth.
But for once I also was able to see the opposite: there were times I offered insights, ideas, and levity that seemed useful to the gathering. Further, as I interacted with those around me, I viewed their less-than-perfect behaviors through a rosier lens than usual. Rather than finding maladroitness in my companions frustrating, I found it endearing. I realized that all of us have been traumatized, in one way or another, and that we’re all doing the best we can with what life has handed us. Yes, past injuries have led to current neuroses, but the result is strangely beautiful–in the same way that a weathered monument is more appealing than one unscathed.
The trials we’ve endured make us who and what we are: lovely in our imperfection, artful in our ineptitude. Noticing this in others makes it easier for me to find it in myself.
Two years ago, after hospitalization for a dangerous illness, I wrote a post entitled It’s All Broken and None of It Needs To Be Fixed. Near the end I penned these words: “A necessary event in the universe’s formation was what’s called symmetry breaking. I have only a vague notion of what that means, but it shows that we live in a fundamentally fractured world.”
In mathematical terms, an entity is symmetrical with regard to an operation if it appears the same afterward as before. For instance, a circle can be rotated on its axis any number of degrees without looking different. A square can be turned ninety degrees (or any multiple thereof) with no shift in appearance, but spin it by some other amount and you will detect the change. So a circle displays more rotational symmetry than a square.
The nascent universe is believed to have displayed a high degree of symmetry: not only in its form, but also in its forces. As the cosmos emerged in the earliest fractions of a second after the Big Bang, uniformity was lost as single forces became multiple. As a consequence, cosmic structure also gave up regularity, changing from an expanding mass of featureless high-energy plasma to one possessed of increasingly clumpy forms: first subatomic particles, then atoms, then stars and galaxies, and so on.
That early loss of symmetry can be seen as a kind of wound. Perfection was shattered and became brokenness. The subsequent evolution, which might be akin to healing, led to the stunning spectacle we encounter today.
Although some degree of symmetry is usually necessary in a successful work of art, absolute symmetry is boring. A perfect sphere of marble fascinates far less than Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Cathedral. A mix of formal elegance with its opposite is what we find most pleasing.
Seen in this light, both our wounds and our healing generate beauty. Soon after major hardships (and especially after adverse upbringings) we may feel like masses of chaos, but we gradually cohere. We discover islands of compassion and nuance in the hot energies of grief and rage, until we emerge from our trials textured, strengthened, and rich with experience. We end up more extraordinary and wise than if we had never been injured at all.
During the staff retreat we participated in a free-writing exercise. These words popped out on my page as pen moved across paper: I am the wound and the life that heals it. I do feel wounded, deeply and thoroughly, especially at the present time: six months after a major surgical procedure and following some painful setbacks. But I also feel the vibrations of life repairing, renewing, and expanding me. Many of my old habits and expectations are dissolving. Rather than taking the gaffes of others personally, I can enjoy with curiosity the oddity and majesty of those around me. Understanding my friends as mixtures of rough and smooth, made more wondrous by their injuries and fortitude, I can begin to believe the same about myself.
All of us are products of great wounding, but also great healing. Life, never satisfied with a blank canvas, splatters us with trauma and then refines us with her gentler brush.