Have you ever read a book that was life-changing? A book where, once you’re finished, the highlighted passages and dog-eared pages far outnumber the pristine ones? It’s the book you recommend to everyone you meet. The book you give as a gift because you want your friends and family to experience the same thing you did with the turn of each page.
That’s how Elizabeth Lesser’s Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow was for me.
I had just turned 30, a birthday I had been excited for, but also wary of. I knew it had the potential to trigger all kind of feelings, like it does in most people when a big birthday rolls around. But for me, it carried more meaning than just a preoccupation with aging.
At 16 years old, I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease with no cure—and given a life expectancy of just 37 years. To enter my new decade with that kind of ticking clock looming over my head was terrifying.
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In the months leading up to my birthday, I planned a big fundraiser to celebrate. Looking back now, I realize that it was a kind of distraction, something I could focus on instead of the fear that turning 30 brought. So when the big day came and went, I was left with all these emotions I had been burying, determined to make that milestone something celebratory.
Living with a chronic illness, you get used to periods of deep sadness and unending fear. But this melancholy was different; it was taking longer to shake. I needed something to help pull me out of it.
Books have always been places I go to find answers, to seek comfort. They’re how I relate to the world, to find the words I can’t form myself. So it was natural that the first place I turned to find comfort was a book.
I had bought Broken Open years ago, but for whatever reason, it sat on my shelf, unread. What made me purchase it in the first place remains a mystery. In fact, its cover wasn’t something I would normally be drawn to. A bird soaring toward the sky? A bit corny for my taste.
Thankfully, I didn’t let that stop me from settling in with my copy and my trusty pink highlighter, my constant reading companion ever since the first book I’d deemed worthy of highlighting—Brave New World. As I read Lesser’s life survival guide, various phrases had me nodding my head, thinking, “Yes! That’s it!” One passage in particular punched me right in the gut:
“When difficulties come our way, we don’t readily seek out help and compassion because we think others might not understand, or would judge us harshly or take advantage of our weakness. And so we hide out, and we miss out.”
As I get older, having cystic fibrosis has made me feel more and more like a burden to others. I require more understanding (when I’m having a hard day), more patience (when my CF slows me down), more flexibility (when I have to cancel plans), more shoulders to cry on (when it all gets too much to bear). Which has meant that, at my lowest point, I let the fear take over—fear that my frequent sadness weighs my family and friends down, that I’m a reminder of how fragile and scary life can be—and I hide away. I tell myself that no one understands. That everyone is too busy. That asking for help makes me appear weak.
But Lesser’s book helped me realize that, if I let it, this period of suffering could help me grow.
“When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth.”
Lesser’s Broken Open taught me to feel as much as you can and know that your struggle is a lesson that will bring you to a version of yourself that’s stronger, more compassionate, and ready for the next hurdle life is sure to throw your way.
Since my first reading, I have referred back to Broken Open many times. The spine is now cracked, the pages bleeding with highlighter, the cover curling up at the edges. As I approach my 31st birthday, its pages continue to bring me peace. I’ve gifted it to some CF friends of mine, hoping it would provide them as much comfort as it has for me. And for that it has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf.
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