‘Broken Open’: We are All in This Together
Elizabeth Lesser’s “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow” is being reissued with a new preface by the author, and it couldn’t be coming out at a better time.
When I wrote Broken Open, I was at the tail end of a difficult time in my own life. Divorce and single motherhood, remarriage and a blended family, the death of my father and upheavals at work—all of this had happened in the space of a few years. It was as if a bomb had gone off in every room of my life: home, work, finances, my whole identity. But I was determined to use the pain of loss and the trauma of change to grow. I made it my goal—my path—not to break down, but instead to break open: to be changed for the better by the stuff of real life.
I wrote Broken Open to make meaning out of my mess. I wrote it to better understand how the most difficult chapter of my life had turned out to be the most vital and valuable one as well. And I wrote it to tell the stories of other people whose journeys through difficult times were far more traumatic than mine, yet who still had come to trust something mysterious, almost magical: that even as things fall apart, we can become whole. That what we fear most can be a pathway into the life we were meant to live.
That was almost twenty years ago. Broken Open became a bestseller. It has now been translated into more than twenty languages—from Chinese to Romanian to Turkish. Over the years I have received letters from around the world, from readers going through all sorts of ordeals and transitions, as well as the normal befuddlement of being human. These good people have shown me how similar we all are—it doesn’t matter where we come from, how old we are, what we do for a living….There is one very short story—two pages to be exact—that readers mention most: “Bozos on the Bus.” The response to that story never ceases to amaze me; it has generated thousands of letters and emails and comments. It lays out the simple truth about one of our most common human experiences—how you and I and everyone we know waste time and squander joy by hiding what’s in our hearts from each other, especially our wounds and fears, our confusion and insecurities.
The message of “Bozos on the Bus” is this: We are all here for this brief and beautiful life, sharing space on a little planet where all kinds of sh*t happens—the good, the bad, the wonderful, the tragic, the stuff that makes us grateful, the stuff that makes us anxious. Instead of defending against the rules of this road or putting on a proud or happy face to mask our vulnerability, “Bozos on the Bus” is an invitation to be radically open to all the textures of the journey. We can be kind and forgiving to ourselves and to each other as we roll along the potholed road. That’s the best way to enjoy this life, to live it fully, and to share it well with others.
Once, after speaking at a conference in Amsterdam, I was approached by a Japanese man who spoke little English. I speak no Japanese. After a few attempts at communicating, the man took my hand, and said one of the few English words he knew: “Bozos.” He had tears in his eyes, which brought tears to mine. I squeezed his hand, and then we both laughed. Bozos was code; it was a shared language of only one word. He was telling me that he too was a bozo on the bus, and that he had figured out the bozo secret. He could stop blaming others and shaming himself. Instead, he could take his seat on the bus—an ordinary, flawed, and precious human being among other ordinary, flawed and precious human beings. He was saying yes to his humanness. Yes to his imperfect personality, his worse-for-wear body, his quirky family. The man kept pointing to himself, and then to me, and then to the crowd in the conference room, saying, “Bozos, bozos.”
Translation: We are all in this together. Everyone is unique, blessed, worthy. And everyone suffers, everyone worries, everyone judges and compares and makes all sorts of blunders and mistakes. No one’s life is really what it looks like on Instagram. …
Enormous energy is freed up when we put down the burden of envying or resenting or trying to live up to what we think is going on in the lives of others—their relationships, their weight, their jobs, their money, their families, their travels to exotic places. Magic happens when we get on with being our genuine selves, doing our best, helping this hurting world, and enjoying the ride with the other bozos. That’s what the Japanese man was saying; that’s the truth that so many other readers have shared with me.
I still meet people wherever I go who want to share their stories of being broken open, of finding the treasure of their true self in the ashes of a difficult time. The book remains current, since difficult times don’t seem to go out of style, and we don’t have just one of them in a lifetime. We don’t learn our lessons in one tidy sweep and then step out into the world, an enlightened saint. That’d be nice, but I haven’t experienced that myself, nor have I witnessed it in others. A reader recently alerted me to an acronym she thought I might appreciate: AFGO, which stands for Another F-ing Growth Opportunity. Yes, that sums it up well. Life continues to provide opportunities for inner growth, whether we want them or not. We get the chance, over and over, to turn and face our difficulties—illness, loss, aging, fear, pain, whatever comes our way—and to ask them, “What have you come to teach me? How can I use this situation to become wiser, braver, kinder, stronger? What can I learn about myself and my choices and reactions? How do I find the light shining through the cracks?”
Adapted from BROKEN OPEN by Elizabeth Lesser, copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Lesser. Reissued in 2020 by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.