The truth of anything is like a mosaic with many tiles and many parts.
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 its mother and father.
Another part of the truth is that things break, tear, corrode, scatter, or end—basically, they are fragile. Speaking of El Capitan, I knew of someone climbing it who had just set anchors above a long horizontal crack when the slab of granite he was standing on broke off and fell like a thousand-ton pancake to the valley floor below (he lived, clinging to his anchor ). Love and other feelings often change in the family. Bodies get sick, grow old and die. Milk is spilled, glasses are broken, people mistreat you and good feelings disappear. One’s sense of calm or worth is easily disturbed. Wars start and then end badly. Planets are warming and hurricanes are flooding cities. Earthquakes cause tidal waves and damage nuclear reactors.
Life is like a house of cards, and one blow – a layoff, an injury, a misjudgment, a bit of bad luck – can bring it down. Looking longer, a few billion years from now, our Sun will swell into a giant red star that will eat Mercury, Venus and Earth: the Grand Canyon and the Pacific Ocean, and all the works of humanity will come to an end, utterly fragile.
Sometimes we overestimate the fragility of things, like when we fail to recognize deep sources of inner strength in ourselves and others. But I think we’re more likely to deny or downplay the true extent of fragility: it’s terrifying to realize how sensitive and vulnerable your body is, or the threads that bind you to others — so easily broken by a single word — or the balance of our planet’s climate and ecology . It’s scary and humbling, which people don’t like, to face the hidden weakness of the body, how easy it is for a relationship to go wrong, the ways in which many of us are overwhelmed and running on fumes, the shaky foundations of the global financial system, the deep cracks within many nations or the unpredictability and intensity of Mother Nature.
But if we don’t recognize fragility, we’ll miss the opportunity to protect and nurture so many things that matter, and we’ll be needlessly surprised and upset when things inevitably fall apart. We have to hug fragility—to see it clearly and take it into our hands—to be grounded in truth, calm in the midst of life’s changes and endings, and resourceful in our stewardship of the things we care about.
Just be aware fragility — both real and potential. Pay attention to how many things break, broadly defined, and notice how many more there are that could break and will eventually break: “things” such as physical objects (eg, a cup, a blouse, a body, a species, an ecosystem , Earth’s crust), relationships, projects, agreements, states of mind, lives and societies.
Notice any discomfort with recognizing fragility. Be aware of other tiles in the mosaic – like stability, elasticity, and repair—that can help you overcome this discomfort. Appreciate that the fragility of things is often what makes them most precious.
You see the fragility of others and their pain and loss associated with all the things that have “broken” or might break for them. You see the delicacy of their feelings, sensitivity and vulnerability in their sense of worth or well-being. Let this knowledge of others – both people you are close to and those you are 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 rude or unkind to them.
See the shortness and fragility of your own life and the fragility of your hopes and dreams: why wait another day to do everything you reasonably can to fulfill them?
Consider where you are unnecessarily fragile—perhaps too angry at criticism, too sensitive to low spirits, too prone to illness, too burdened, too isolated at work (or in life in general), or too under-resourced in any significant area—and make a realistic plan for them supporting. For example, I was exhausted and realized that sleep had to be a priority.
Do what’s in your heart about what’s fragile in our world, whether it’s the sick elderly person next door or the victims of a disaster across the ocean.
Ultimately, try to accept the inevitable: all things fall apart, one way or another. Everything explodes. And yet there is something so beautiful about this part of the truth, as Leonard Cohen says far more eloquently than I can:
Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offer
There is a crack in everything
That’s how light enters
That’s how light enters