How to Lead with a Broken Heart
By Joseph DiCenso
I’m sitting in a circle of thirty-six women and men on the final morning of a three-day conference and I’m crying. Through my choked and wobbly voice I’m trying to name the ache I feel for the state of the world. My grief over the gap between what could be and what is. I speak of the beauty I see; of its growing poignancy the more it becomes threatened. The coral reefs, the pelagic fish. The species, peoples, cultures, wisdom–dying, disappeared. How it sometimes feels like I’m living a long goodbye.
Though a familiar guest, I’ve never shared this grief. It seems strange I’ve chosen so public a space, yet it feels more like something chose me, and this moment.1
The room is quiet. A few in the group are also crying. As I reach for a way to end, a question comes that seems to hold my grief and frustration, the desire to help and the despair: “How do I lead with a broken heart?”
Surrendering to the Question
For the last month or so, I have held that question, rubbing it between thumb and forefinger like a talisman, or a worry bead. I like the question. It reminds me of a line from Rilke: “Take your well-disciplined strengths and stretch them between two opposing poles. Because inside human beings is where God learns.” 2
Leading and being transparent are two of my strengths. I’ve learned that sharing my humanness engenders trust. But this seems different–by degree or categorically, I can’t yet tell.
I do know this: my “heartbreak” is more than sadness. It is part grief, part poignancy, part outrage and part utter frustration–a maddening sense of powerlessness.
There’s a rumble in me: the anarchist misanthrope in me would gladly see it all go up in smoke. While my inner vigilante wants to invoke some serious bodily harm–and spiritual crisis–in the plunderers, with their bulging pockets and under-developed morals. Another part of me–the Artist? the Lover?–wants to find an intact reef and spend days snorkeling and recording for posterity the beauty and abundance–an homage. The Leo in me wants to know where I can have the most impact, how I can do the most good–or the most damage to the system that needs to crash.
What I want most is the tensile strength to feel how much I love; to let my heart break over what we have broken. To be honest–at least with myself–about how deeply I care. And I’m afraid. Afraid to feel the intensity of my grief, rage and despair. Afraid it’ll make me weak, that I’ll go crazy–or limp. Yet I feel called to let the beauty of the world pierce me, shatter my armor, break me open.
From Grief a Gift
This cracking open is a tender moment. It took some courage to let thirty-some “strangers” witness my grief. Yet there was a golden yolk to it, too, that fed and sustained–me and others (several later told me I’d given voice to their feelings). “[S]ometimes our love for the world–like our despair–wells up so strong within us that it is like its own bioluminescence, a glowing, a burning that makes us feel more present in the world.” 3
Back to my question: what does it look like to lead from this place? Broken. Open. Stymied. What is the energy in that yolk and how do I harness it? Will it drown me or feed me? Because I feel called to act, to lead, to “make a difference.” So how do I break open and notapart? How do I surrender and still get out of bed with something to give?
And could it be something other than grueling? Is this pain simply the result of seeing so much beauty in a time of such demise? Or is there something I do that makes it (more) painful?
As I was packing my car at the end of the conference, a friend approached me and gently pointed out something. In my questing for how I can help there seemed to be a strong “should.” As in, I should be having more impact in the world (and, of course, what’s wrong with me that I’m not?). Kind of a heavy narrative!
He helped me to leave with another question. One I hold nestled against the question of how to lead with a broken heart. That question is, “And how can that leading be an act of joy?” (Now I’m really asking a lot!)
It’s not yet time for answers. The questions are serving, though. They are staked out in me and I feel them stretching me. I’m trusting that that is enough and that the Me that is beyond me is watching and taking notes.
1 The conference was called The Art of Hosting and I highly recommend it!
2 From “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight” by Rainer Marie Rilke (1924)
3 Rick Bass, “The Burning Present” Tricycle: the Buddhist Review (Winter 2010)
– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.