I was sitting with a friend once when the question of whether we could or could not be broken came up. This friend had what he would happily describe as a scientific view of the world, meaning he viewed life as a mechanical experience. There is a comfort in understanding life in this way. If something is wrong then, like all mechanical things, it must be broken, and if it is broken, you need only fix it and whatever was wrong will now be right. However, to maintain this comfort, everything must be breakable, including people.
Our discussion quickly moved to children, and for good reason. Adults who do terrible, broken things like Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot might not have started out broken, but instead have become broken by the cruelties of life, the way a toy might break over time from misuse. But if a child arrives in the world broken, then it is as if he has come out of the box missing certain crucial pieces that no amount of tape or glue can repair. In this way, these broken children are actually necessary to maintain a mechanical view of the world.
“What about the children,” he asked, “who are born without the ability to feel compassion? They simply can’t do it. They’re going to go on to become serial killers because they have no empathy. How are they not broken?”
How tempted I was to demand some evidence that these children even existed. I so hated this view of the world that I wanted to slay it with the sharp arrows of argument. Yet his question triggered within me a question I had never bothered to ask until that evening, a question I would not have asked if I had tried to prove somehow to this man that people couldn’t be broken.
“Even if such a child were born,” I said, “just because we don’t know at this time how to help that child learn to feel compassion, doesn’t mean we can’t learn to help that child feel compassion. And even if we never learn to help him feel compassion, that doesn’t mean we won’t. Are we really willing to give up on the idea that we could learn? Why would we do that?”
He agreed he had no interest in giving up on learning, and I felt the relief that comes when I stop trying to prove an enemy wrong and begin instead to speak to a friend from what I know has always been right. For instance, I have always known that learning itself is an act of faith, though I had never named such until that night. It is impossible to prove that you will learn something. Instead, you aim the arrow of your attention toward what you wish to learn and have something resembling faith that you will learn it. This is how the possible becomes the actual, how we launched rockets to the moon and built the Internet and wrote books and started businesses. And the only thing that can actually stand between us and this learning, the only thing that can actually stand between the possible and the actual is this useless, end-of-creation story of brokenness.
If brokenness is an option, we can place brokenness between ourselves and the world in which we wish to live. This is what my friend did accidentally. His perception of these children’s potential stopped where they were. They were broken. There was nothing more to do or think about them. But if no one is broken, if we take it off the table completely, then learning, which is our constant, conscious expansion of perception, remains not only possible, but inevitable.
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I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.