Over the last few years a certain vision keeps returning to me of a person sitting in the midst of great destruction—we’re talking 9/11 or a scene out of a post apocalyptic film. But what stands out to me whenever I receive this image is the extreme beauty of ground zero. I see a woman surrounded by the rubble of her life and I am filled with a tremendous sense of possibility. Though the word apocalypse is most commonly used to refer to widespread cataclysm, the term is literally rooted in the concept of an uncovering, a revelation. That’s why the woman in the rubble appears to me as supremely blessed. This moment here is sacred. The opportunity here is for great transformation—even rebirth—for life taking a wild left turn that leads to surprisingly joyful vistas.
The truth of this paradox has been borne out so clearly and dramatically enough times in my life that I have largely stopped questioning it. Still, the mounting of natural disasters of recent weeks literally brought me to my knees in tears this morning. There is a brutal reality of homelessness, injury, and death staring me in the face, making the beauty of the weather and my surroundings here in NYC all the more precious and bittersweet.
This is not the time for flimsy truisms such as “everything happens for a reason.” If there is nothing but blind faith to prop up those words, then they cannot stand to reason and fail to resonate. Now it feels vitally important for me to remember the hard evidence in my life that my greatest gifts were the fruits of my darkest hours. Whenever it felt like I had nothing more to lose, whenever it felt that all I could do was give myself over to the darkness of pain and uncertainty, that was when I opened myself to grace and to magic. Take the leap into the abyss. Let myself sink to the bottom of the ocean. Fully surrendered (and we can’t be emotionally dishonest about it), we reach rock bottom, where there is no way to go but up.
When I was in graduate school I once gave a conference paper on the seventeenth-century nun and writer, Sor Juana. I was particularly interested in her rhetoric of humility, and her use of a phrase borrowed from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: For when I am weak, then I am strong. Back then, I marveled at how a woman so ahead of her time marshaled a figure of incapacity to lay claim to intellectual freedom. Today these words come back to me not as figurative posturing, but a truth that rings deep in my bones. I see how surrendering to feelings of utter helplessness and hopelessness takes me out of resistance and places me right in the juicy flow of life. And every single time, that flow has eventually carried me to realities beyond the wildest wishes of my imagination. All the devastating losses I have sustained, including my dad’s death, have led to life situations that I am fully grateful for.
The truth is, I do not know what will happen to every single person whose life has been permanently changed by a hurricane, forest fire, or earthquake. The prudent and realistic aspects of me wouldn’t bet money that “everything will work out for the best.” But I continue to hold in my heart a tremendous amount of compassion and hope and belief in the human spirit. We are frightfully fragile beings, physically and emotionally speaking, but I’m convinced that our hearts are unbelievably stout once we let them break and release the power that most of us keep so tightly hidden.