I am keeping my distance from the world and at the same time noticing how entwined in the world I am. I am watching fear and grief well up around me like floodwaters, and I am thinking about the ways this will seep into the cracks of all of our closed doors. No amount of handwashing or disinfectant will keep out the heartbreak of this pandemic.
Here is what we know about heartbreak: it hurts like hell. It sends us into a dark so black we almost forget what light looks like. We curl up, wounded and howling (or, perhaps worse, wounded and silent). The pain changes over time, but those changes themselves are variable. Heartbreak can tear us apart and make us smaller. We all have images of those who were ruined by their grief, whose lives fall, Miss Havisham-like, into a cobweb-draped stasis. We know people who won’t refer to a tragedy, believing that ignoring it will make it go away and losing some of their humanity in the process. Or heartbreak can bring us together and make us bigger than we were before, more able to connect and feel more deeply, more compassionate to others in their grief, more alive and more able to love.
Perhaps what I learned most from my trip to cancerland, from the too-early deaths of those I’ve loved, from the ordinary grief of our everyday lives is this: heartbreak peels us open. It shatters the normalcy of our former lives, of our former relationships. It reveals our innermost secrets to ourselves. And beyond the searing pain is a new possibility for how we could love, work, laugh again. Rilke says “It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.”
All around me (and inside me), I hear people asking, When will we return to normal? We are wanting to get out of this transition where we cannot remain standing. As we blink into this moment of pain and disconnection, of fear and loss, we want to know when we will be able to go to work again, go on holiday again, buy toilet paper at the corner market. And while I crave that too (my goodness how I crave it), there is a part of me that wants us to use this moment of collected global fear and loss to change what is normal, to listen into our peeled open hearts, to find new ways of connecting, new ways of being with each other and our economies and our planet.
In the US, cracks in art works are mended as carefully as possible; we want the broken thing to appear to never have been injured. I watch that in leaders, too. A moment of emotion or difficulty or grief is papered over, rushed through, put aside as quickly as possible so as not to sully the purpose of the meeting.
In Japan, when a crack appears, sometimes the owner fills it with gold; it’s called “wabi-sabi”—the embracing of the flawed or imperfect. Here the broken thing sparkles though its imperfections, because of its imperfections. Now is our time as leaders—of families, of organisations, of communities—to embrace the flawed and imperfect and profoundly mortal humans around us. Now is the time to allow our wholeness with all of its imperfections.
That’s because it is heartbreak as much as joy (more than joy?) that connects us, ultimately, but only if we are thoughtful about how to avoid our reflexes here. If we are not careful, we could descend into cobwebby darkness. If we are not careful, we could caulk over the cracks so no one notices them. We could hope to return to a normal life once COVID19 roars through our world. But this hope is not only deluded, it also belies the utility of our grief. It is our scar tissue, far more than our perfection, that allows us to see and love one another. It is our mortality that makes each human life—each human day—so precious. The true act of leadership right now is for us to hear “our astonished emotions living” and to hear the astonished emotions of those around us.
Let us acknowledge the heartbreak of our loss and disconnection and paint it through with gold. Let us craft a golden net that holds us all together as members of the heartbroken human race, spinning away on this tiny planet in an endless ocean of stars.