A friend told me a few months ago he was broken. I responded that he was not broken. Something about this exchange has been nagging at me and I've been pondering it ever since.
I believe my friend was right. I believe I was right, too.
How can we both be right?
Many wisdom traditions teach of two selves. The false self and the true self. The false self is constructed by us, with the help of parents, friends, society, culture, and religion. Also called our ego or identity, it begins with our name given to us by our parents and we join the process as soon as we can say the word "mine." Over a lifetime we build a "me" who has a name, gender, preferences, roles, titles, style, accomplishments, degrees, jobs, bank accounts, aspirations, goals, possessions, and beliefs.
We wear this identity like a shell. It can be beautiful, impressive, heavy, complex, intricate, delicate - everyone's shell is different.
But we all - to various degrees - come to believe we are the shell. Because our world, particularly the Western world, is oriented around qualities of the shell and values the shell so much, we learn very early that this is who we are. We spend much time and energy making sure the shell is good enough.
And this is mostly ok. It's a necessary aspect of how we operate in this world.
As we travel through life our shell accumulates life's winnings but also weathers many storms. Sometimes the experiences along the way are so intense that the shell cracks. Some cracks are so big that we feel broken. And we are broken, or rather, the shell is broken.
Since we've believed for so long (our entire lives up until that point) that we are the shell, of course we suffer when it cracks and breaks! The pain of this can be so acute it feels like dying.
Experiences like serious illness, injury, losing a job, losing your money, death of a loved one, divorce, crimes, injustice, war; these are some of life's most vicious storms. And then there are the insidious storms, the ones that imprint upon us beliefs that we are unworthy and unlovable: abuse, neglect, deceit, betrayal, criticism, comparison, shaming, blaming to name a few.
Few of us come out of these storms feeling triumphant.
My friend felt broken. In the world of shells, he is.
But we are not of the world.
Who we really are, our true self, cannot be constructed, changed, improved, diminished, or broken.
Being in the world, but knowing you are not of the world, changes everything. This is where we arrive once our shells have been broken enough that we know for sure who we really are.
Who we really are is already whole, already perfected, already given. We are born into the world as this. The problem is that we forget.
Knowing this, remembering this, is the gift life is offering us. But arriving there is not usually easy.
Over the ages it’s been taught in virtually all wisdom traditions that when we push against life, we suffer, we break.
It turns out that suffering has an important role to play in our lives, although we would rather not suffer and certainly not choose suffering, it can be the door through which we find a truer us - bringing us closer to discovering our true selves.
Knowing that a gift lies on the other side of suffering and trusting that an intense, painful situation can refine us is easier to read about than actually experience. It requires risking a step of faith, a step outside the comfort of our shells, and a belief that we really aren’t going to die!
Most of us have invested decades building our shell. Even if it’s way too heavy or not a good fit or making us sick… our shells provide a great degree of security and protection - because it’s known. We like what we know. Even if we really hate what we know.
Many live their entire lives inside the fortress of their shell. Repeating the same thoughts and experiences day after day. The implications of this are profound.
It’s very difficult to be vulnerable and open our hearts to others when are are living inside a fortress. We tend to limit our experiences and who we are willing to relate to. We believe we have all the answers and aren’t willing to open our minds to new thoughts or ideas. We judge others on the state of their shells. We keep life out.
When we stay comfortable with the ever-repeating known, we lose opportunities for authenticity, compassion, connection, adventure, and joy.
But out beyond our shell is where the magic is.
It just might take going through hell to get there.
And life, because it wants you to have the gift it’s offering, will keep giving you opportunities to get there.
There’s a saying, “what you resist persists.” Resisting change, pushing against life, continuing to suffer without going through transformation will simply bring you more of the same, more urgently and probably more painfully.
The journey of knowing who we really are, our true self, is where we are arriving - and we always are arriving. We never fully arrive because while we are still in the world we will always carry our shells.
We arrive at knowing who we really are with shells broken open.
This is good news because the more broken we are, the more the light of our true self shines through, helping others, blessing others. That same favor is returned to us; we can be blessed from the light that can find its way to us through the broken places.
Our true self is something beyond words but has been described as our soul, love, truth, light, home. Qualities of our true self are unbreakable, unshakable, indestructible, infinite, boundless, unified, already perfect.
Arriving there is heaven while we’re still on earth. It’s coming back to, remembering, who we really are. A homecoming.
Yet it’s not a place or a thing at all. It’s a state of being. One you can keep arriving to through receiving and experiencing all life is offering, going all the way through hell when you find yourself suffering, letting the shell of you crack and loving it as it is. And perhaps even resting in knowing you - the real you - cannot be broken.