Faithful Living: Pain helps spiritual life grow

Unto a broken heart, no other one may go.

Without the high prerogative, itself hath suffered too.

-- Emily Dickinson, 1864

It was during my sophomore year at the University of California that I first met Emily Dickinson.

I did not actually meet her, of course, for she died in the 1800s. But I do continue to meet her in wonderful ways through her poetry. In fact, her masterful words give us a peek into the deepest themes surrounding the human experience. I treasure the year I studied Emily Dickinson’s life and the writings she produced in response to her experiences.

I was drawn initially to her deep and brooding words by a marvelous professor who had spent a good portion of his adult life researching, teaching, and writing about this one-of-a-kind American poet. This week I found myself drawn to her unforgettable thoughts on the broken-hearted because Valentine’s Day is nearing. The expectations of the high schoolers with whom I work each day are building in anticipation of the day, in some cases hopelessly beyond reality. Occasionally my own heart breaks for these kids as well as in response to my own life concerns. And right along with these ever so broken-hearted feelings has come an astonishing discovery: A suffering heart can be a strange and welcome bedfellow.

Sound impossible? I can see why, for I once believed that if I felt happy, if stress was kept at bay, and if I rid even the deep reaches of my own mind of any sadness, these were signals that my life was going well. Success, it seemed, came wrapped only in good feelings.

I no longer believe this. I believe, instead, that feeling broken-hearted can be an acceptable condition. We will live through the experience. We will recover ever stronger if we allow God to interplay in the experience. We will learn to live deeply satisfying lives with a heart that occasionally feels like it’s breaking in two.

Early in my life I began realizing that any number of things seemed to etch fractures into my heart. Thankfully, I experienced a happy and secure childhood so my heart did not break out of any kind of great injustice or victimization. My heart began breaking in response to events around my neighborhood, in my community, and around the world. As I grew in my ability to reflect, I came to understand that God had wired me this way with good reason and full intention.

I struggle, however, with this tender heart of mine. While I enjoy an optimistic and energetic approach to life, I experience moments each day — never the same from one day to the next — where I simply hurt. I hurt for the world — for family members and friends struggling with problems, for injustice and famine, war and disease. I work on not dwelling on the emotional pain but I have also learned not to avoid or ignore it.

I allow myself to feel it deeply and choose a response.

When Robert Kennedy was assassinated I felt terribly sorry for the daughter closest to my age. I wrote her a letter and she responded with a card, thanking me for my sympathy. I still have the card.

My heart broke this week when a student I see regularly talked about his life in the foster care system and what it feels like to have a mother who can no longer care for him. It hurts and frustrates me to regularly face such enormous sadness without a way to step in and wipe it all away.

Each and every time I feel my heart breaking I have learned to take a deep breath and ask God to move right on in. Right there at the very spot where it hurts the most and at the moment when I search frantically for comforting and helpful words. Right there when the immensity of the problem demands a heavenly source of hope and energy and strength because I cannot possibly respond with my own personal reserves. They are simply not built up enough. They are tapped too often.

I no longer long for a carefree life with a fully intact heart, for I know I would cease to grow if I were content with all aspects of my life. There is sweet solace knowing I will grow strongest when the fire is hot and the despair immense; when I can experience the myriad of ways God’s love empowers and strengthens me — along with those around me who ask.

God will forever be the great mender of hearts. We are not alone. All we need to do is ask.

Freelance writer Joan Bay Klope’s e-mail address is

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