the open-broken heart

there's no way to be human without having ones heart broken

* i wrote this post earlier this week but hadn’t posted it yet when i received word yesterday morning that we lost a dear refuge family member who had been struggling with a long season of not wanting to live. right now we are aching, struck by the painful realities of life. broken-hearted. and trying to hold on to God’s sustaining hope. i debated posting it this morning, but the reality is that i woke up today needing these words more than ever and if even one other person does, then i guess it’s probably worth it to share. i know we were never meant to suffer alone. 

* * * * *

note: i’m on a parker palmer kick right now.

right after i posted the intra-faith dialogue post i had a whole bunch of other things i wish i had said, like this is different from ecunemical. that is another thing all together; this is about divisions within those of us who come from the same roots and have gone different directions and at this point, i think so many doubt these divides can be crossed so it’s really hard to care about and because a lot of people have had so many unsafe & ugly experiences with certain conversations, there’s no way they are going to go back for more.

but honestly, all of them swept away after a really crazy week filled with news of death & suicide attempts & all kinds of other deep pain around here.

in the real raw moments of our crazy lives, the luxury of theological rambling goes out the window.

it makes me think how the world is crying out for hope while we’re talking about theology and how much time we waste arguing over the dumbest things while the dark is caving in on people all over the place.  it makes me think of what Jesus said to the pharisees, “you hypocrites…you shut the door to the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. you yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (matthew 23:13-14).

so many people are pretty darn desperate for some hope.  most people don’t care about the greek meaning of the word “submit” but they sure do care about finding relief, light in the darkness, love in the emptiness, peace in the storm. 

after getting news that a dear friend & lover-of-so-many-hurting-people had died, i pulled out an old handout that he had given me years ago when he facilitated our house of refuge over 4 years ago. i still remember the story he told because it was so good but i wanted to read it again. it was in a chapter called “the open broken heart” by parker palmer.  he says that there are two kinds of broken hearts–one that is “an unresolved wound we carry with us for a long time, sometimes tucking it away and feeding it, sometimes trying to ‘resolve it’ by inflicting the same wound on others.”

but the other is a different way to consider what a broken heart might mean.  he says, “imagine that small clenched fist of a heart ‘broken open’ into the largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” 

he shares a hasidic tale where a disciple asks the rabbi, “”why does torah tell us to place these words upon our hearts?” why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?  the rabbi answers, “it is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. so we place them on top of our hearts.  and there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in….”

the reality of life this side of heaven is that there is extreme suffering.  so much pain, so much loss, so much heartbreak, so much not-the-way-we-had-hoped-it-would-be. 

life is so tender, so fragile.

yet at the same time, it is so strong.  i see the incredible courage of people who keep going after such extreme loss, laughter through the tears, forgiveness after so much hurt, moving forward after huge setbacks, beauty emerging out of heaps of ashes.

divorce. death. abuse. depression. chronic pain. addiction. bankruptcy. loneliness.

to be human means we will suffer.

parker palmer says that “when we don’t know what to do with our suffering, we turn to violence.” 

and we all know that violence isn’t just toward others, it is toward ourselves, too.

the most important thing is that we somehow don’t suffer alone.   

we were never supposed to suffer alone.

it’s why the church is not supposed to be about singing some songs & listening-to-the-preacher-preach & getting a spiritual fix.

it’s supposed to be a place for collective suffering, collective hope.

this is why i am a nut case when it comes to “church” (remember, i use that term loosely) because our best hope in the darkness is to have others with us who have unclenched fists & open broken hearts to help hold this pain.  people who don’t try to solve or fix or scripturize or try to make sense of what can’t be made sense of.  people with pericardiums that work.  people brave enough to welcome pain.  people who can, as parker palmer says, stand in the ‘tragic gap’, the “gap between what is and what could and should be…”

i’m so thankful for those people in my life, for a God who is close the broken-hearted, for a church that does not minimize suffering and keeps turning toward hope.

God, may we be people with open-broken hearts who honor our own suffering and the suffering of others well–with faith, hope, love, and dignity.


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Hi Kathy,

    I know what a sensitive issue this is. There is one ex-student from the college I go to who hung himself form a tree and another who tried to throw himself off a motorway bridge who by the grace of God was prevented from doing so by a couple of policemen who just so happened to be passing by at the time. I know how important it is for folks in such difficult positions just to have someone to be there with them as a friend, sometime not doing or saying anything, just to be present.

    When I read what you say about it being impossible to love without being heartbroken I remember the words of CS Lewis:

    “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love
    anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.
    If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart
    to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies
    and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the
    casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark,
    motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will
    become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to
    tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only
    place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the
    dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

    C.S. Lewis,

    The Four Loves

    I’d love to give some words of comfort and wisdom but I fear any attempt to do so would result in writing something crass and / or inadequate and also involve myself in a way that would be too overwhelming for me. So I will just say I pray for you, and the people you mention that are in pain and the news of death and suicide attempts.

  • This is so important. My husband really struggles with this the last few years and wrote an unexpected piece on it here;
    I have had a tough time watching a spouse hold out for hope but admire his struggle too. Suicide is a very tricky issue. it leaves so much pain on loved ones and yet the pain of the one suffering is so hard to describe… but Even there the Divine shows beauty. And we must do all we can to show love. The rest is out of our control.
    I also have a passion to give hope and healing because daily life can be a struggle with my brain wiring. While I personally do not understand wanting to end life I have witnessed it enough to compassionately understand why… My latest post in a way coincides with this but it is for women. I think you may like it;
    Thank you for this post. It was very wise. The important things in life.( ps the tests came back cancer free!;)

    • thanks so much for sharing, those posts were so good! so real and honest. we need to keep talking about these realities openly.

      and i am so relieved that the tests came back negative. so scary. i went through that a few years ago and it was terrifying on so many levels and so hard to not go to extreme thinking…very glad for good news!

  • I am so sorry friend. I wish I could be there to hold the pain with you and the whole Refuge clan. I have been clinging lately to a fragile hope that God is good. It is fragile, simply because I live daily, as you do in/and with so much injustice and sometimes it is hard to find hope in all of that. love you!!!

    • oh i wish we were closer, too. but i have known how much you understand. it has just been so hard in so many ways…what healing from mental illness really looks like. i am coming to believe that it looks like dignity and love and community and shreds of hope in the midst. that sometimes feels so hopeless but it also feels like embracing reality instead of a false platitude that “it will be healed” in the way that brings lasting and sure and true relief. i love you.

  • This post is beautiful! I love the image of the rabbis’ tale.

    And I am sorry for whatever pain you are going through.

  • What a beautiful, timely, true message………indeed, what I NEEDED to hear today to find grace & strength to continue to walk forward. Thanks for acknowledging that pain & deep suffering very much exist in our lives, and not masking it with false platitudes that ring hollow. Thank you, thank you for ever being real!

    • thank you cynthia. grace & strength to you from afar as we all keep walking forward, one little step at a time. love from colorado.

  • This is so beautiful, Kathy, and so true. I love Parker Palmer! And these words are balm tonight. So, so sorry about the death in your fellowship. Been down that road and it’s a hard one. Prayers for peace and comfort and maybe most of all, for hope in the midst of a situation when it can feel like darkness is winning. Hang onto it – these words help.

    • thanks diana. yeah, the darkness sure tries to win, but i can’t. i’m always reminded how in my old paradigm a big part was “praying against the darkness” but not it’s ‘praying into the light”….that the best way to fight off the darkness is not to bring more Light into it. thanks for your love from afar, it means a lot.

  • I was driving from work today, and was so so sad thinking of all the ins and outs and the despair and the empty ache. And then the Serenity Prayer popped into my head (!), and i found some comfort momentarily. It struck me, though, that the “accept the things I cannot change”, also applies to the “good stuff” too. Like the truth about us that we reject because of self-loathing or disbelief or whatever. Accepting the love and created family and hope and trusting that real love doesn’t change when things get hard. community is so hard, but cannot fathom anymore the alternative. I will take an open broken heart anyday. yep, i can hold on to the truth that we are not meant to suffer alone.xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

    • thanks dear stacy. so grateful to be in the thick of it with you. we read the serenity prayer at the end of the service and i was thinking how truly lovely that prayer is…”accepting this world as it is, not as i would have it…”

  • We’re praying for you and your community as you go through this difficult time.

    I vividly remember when my dad died. The church attended the funeral, then avoided us like the plague. Based on comments, I think they were afraid they might be asked to help us financially.

    The people I remember who came alongside us were the “heathen” and one pastor (not our church) who spent time with us, helped with house repairs and made themselves generally available. While they couldn’t fix the situation, they let us know we weren’t alone.

    • thanks sam, there are so many moments where i am so proud of the refuge community and the places they are willing to go, where so many others would run for the hills. it really is a beautiful gift, a taste of the kingdom of God, a reminder that there’s no where else i’d rather be…the part i love the most is i know it’s not just “in this moment” of the crisis but over the long, long haul ahead….

  • Kathy, my heart to yours in your loss. I wish I was nearer – I would take you to one of you r ‘comfort’ places and just sit with you, listen, hold your hand….{{{hug}}}


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