Embrace Fragility

Embrace Fragility

Could it crack?

The Practice:
Embrace fragility.

Why?

The truth of anything is like a mosaic with many tiles, many parts.

One part of the truth of things is that they are robust and enduring, whether it’s El Capitan in Yosemite or the love of a child for her mother and father.

Another part of the truth is that things bruise, tear, erode, disperse, or end – fundamentally, they’re fragile. Speaking of El Capitan, I knew of someone climbing it who had just placed anchors above a long horizontal crack when the sheet of granite he was standing on broke off to fall like a thousand-ton pancake to the valley floor below (he lived, clutching his anchors). Love and other feelings often change in a family. Bodies get ill, age, and die. Milk spills, glasses break, people mistreat you, good feelings fade. One’s sense of calm or worth is easily disturbed. Wars start and then end badly. Planets heat up and hurricanes flood cities. Earthquakes cause tidal waves and damage nuclear reactors.

A life is like a house of cards, and a single gust – a layoff at work, an injury, a misjudgment, a bit of bad luck – can knock it over. Taking a longer view, several billion years from now, our Sun will swell into a red giant star that consumes Mercury, Venus, and Earth: the Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean, and all the works of humankind will come to an end, utterly fragile.

Sometimes we overestimate the fragility of things, as when we don’t recognize the deep wells of inner strength in ourselves and others. But I think we are more likely to deny or downplay the true extent of fragility: it’s scary to realize how delicate and vulnerable your body is, or the threads that bind you to others – so easily frayed by a single word – or the balance of climate and ecology on our planet. It’s scary and humbling – neither of which people like – to face the underlying frailty of the body, how easy it is for a relationship to go awry, the ways that so many of us are over-extended and running on fumes, the rickety underpinnings of the global financial system, the deep fissures within many nations, or the unpredictability and intensity of Mother Nature.

But if we don’t recognize fragility, we’ll miss chances to protect and nurture so many things that matter, and we’ll be needlessly surprised and upset when things do inevitably fall apart. We need to embrace fragility – to see it clearly and take it into our arms – to be grounded in truth, peaceful amidst life’s changes and endings, and resourceful in our stewardship of the things we care about.

How?

Simply be mindful of fragility – both actual and potential. Notice how many things do break – defined broadly – and notice how many more there are that could break and eventually will: “things” such as physical objects (e.g., cup, blouse, body, species, ecosystem, earth’s crust), relationships, projects, agreements, states of mind, lives, and societies.

Notice any discomfort with recognizing fragility. Be aware of the other tiles in the mosaic – such as stability, resilience, and repair – that can help you push through this discomfort. Appreciate that it is the fragility of things that often makes them most precious.

See the fragility of others, and their pains and losses related to all the things that have “broken” or could break for them. See the delicacy of their feelings, the sensitivities and vulnerabilities in their sense of worth or well-being. Let this knowing about others – both people you’re close to and those you’re not, even people who are difficult for you – open your heart to them. Knowing the fragility of others will naturally lead you away from being harsh or unkind to them.

See the brevity and flimsiness of your own life, and the fragility of your hopes and dreams: why wait another day to do all that you reasonably can to fulfill them?

Consider where you are unnecessarily fragile – perhaps too prickly about criticism, too vulnerable to a slumping mood, too prone to illness, too indebted, too isolated at work (or in life altogether), or too under-resourced in any significant area – and make a realistic plan for shoring these up. For example, I’ve been getting run-down and have realized I really need to make sleep a higher priority.

Do what’s in your heart about what’s fragile in our world – whether it’s an ailing elderly person next door or disaster victims across an ocean.

Ultimately, try to come to peace with the inevitable: all things fall apart, one way or another. Everything cracks. And yet there is something so beautiful about this part of the truth, as Leonard Cohen says much more eloquently than I can:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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