The Impersonal and the Intimate: An Unlikely Pairing

There are moments when life feels strangely intimate: when you turn on the radio and your favorite song starts to play; when a newborn curls its tiny hand around your finger; when you catch a beautiful sunset on your drive home; when you have just the right amount of change in your purse for a small treat to cure the pangs of hunger; when a stranger compliments your outfit.

And there are moments when life feels unbearably impersonal: when you lose a job you loved; when you sprain your ankle days before the marathon you’ve been training for; when you learn your partner’s been unfaithful; when your computer crashes before you’ve saved your work; when you miss the last train home.

No matter how the events of our lives unfold, the meaning we assign to them and the lessons we derive from them greatly impact how they shape us and ultimately, how we shape the world.

Tragedy and loss happen with an alarming regularity despite our best attempts to shield ourselves from their inevitable occurrence. Our humanity binds us to an unspoken agreement that none of us is immune to suffering. A minor setback can spiral into a life-altering tragedy, while a series of tough breaks can redefine the very fabric of our lives.

Yet there’s another agreement that we often fail to hold ourselves accountable to: none of us is immune to joy.

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.

As impersonal as our lives’ misfortunes may seem, they are imbued with a deep intimacy that can only be revealed as we allow ourselves to fully encounter them: eyes wide open, emotions laid bare. As author Joanna Macy writes, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”

Imagine the inner workings that have taken place after you’ve received unsettling news. You may have reevaluated your priorities, your relationships, or your life’s work. You may have discovered a deep well of inner strength you didn’t know you held. You may have gained an appreciation for the simple moments of your days. You may have learned a new skill, mended a broken heart, or ignited an old passion.

The intersection between suffering and joy is one we’ll encounter numerous times over. It might be days, weeks, or years before we experience the transformative effects that tragedy often evokes. But it is at this unique juncture where intimacy lies.

There are many avenues to discovery, inspiration, revelation, and renewal, and the paths that are marked by the achingly familiar roadblocks and unfailingly determined obstacles can be some of the most revealing. Through a constant interplay of the seemingly random and obscure to the apparent predestined and deliberate, our lives are at once mysterious and elementary.

While the whys and hows of our journeys may not always be apparent, we can learn to recognize that the answers we seek rarely exist in isolation. They are intimately connected to how we define ourselves as individuals and how we let our lives’ unfoldings define who we become.