Berlin, like many of the great European cities, has its triumphal arch, the Brandenburg Gate, topped with a chariot and four horses, driven by the Roman goddess of victory. It represents a certain vision of human progress where victory is achieved by force and triumphs are celebrated in proud buildings. In this vision, we gather our strength, make our plans, apply ourselves and move forward. At moments like this, growth feels exhilarating, like a triumph, with all the elements moving together in harmony. We look up, we ascend and consciously move forward.

However, at other times. a different type of hard work is required for inner growth. A lot of people I encounter are struggling because of difficulties in relationships, family loss, health issues, and economic pressures. And through the course of a lifespan nobody can be completely immune from such burdens. We have all had periods where we have seen our dreams shattered and our life goals made more distant. It can feel like we are going backwards or nothing is happening. Or we have been with someone going through moments of pain, feeling their world come crashing down, and we have not known how to respond. There is risk involved at every moment of human life, simply because we are human. Our family relationships can cause us to worry. Our bodies may not function as well as they once did. Even in good relationships and friendships, in order to trust each other, we are required to live with a relatively high degree of risk. And sometimes that can be betrayed.

Elizabeth Lesser writes in her book Broken Open : How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow that moments of difficulty can be deep moments of growth: We too can reproduce ourselves from the shattered pieces of a difficult time. Our lives ask us to die and be reborn every time we confront change – change within ourselves and change in our world. When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth. When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self — the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey. This is the way to live a meaningful and hopeful life — a life of real happiness and inner peace.

The Brandenburg Gate model of progress and power, so esteeemed in today’s society, is not a reliable one on which to base our life’s work. Sometimes we are required to be an observer, as life’s direction moves in a way that we did not anticipate. We may not feel in control of the power that is being manifested. We need, at times, to descend, rather than ascend, in order to grow. However, as Heminway reminds us, we are often stronger at the places where we have been broken. The surprising nature of life’s path is part of its wonder, when we have eyes to see it. Life, as the animals in Narnia said of Altan, is “Oh no….not tame, but is good” As Lesser puts it, being broken is just one aspect of being open:

Over and over we are broken on the shore of life. Our stubborn egos are knocked around, and our frightened hearts are broken open – not once, and not in predictable patterns, but in surprising ways and for as long as we live. The promise of being broken and the possibility of being opened are written into the contract of human life.

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