By Michele Harper. Riverhead Books, 2020. 304 pages. $27/hardcover; $16/paperback (available in July); $13.99/eBook.
The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir by Michele Harper is exactly the balm I needed at the end of 2020. In the book, Harper, an emergency room doctor, reflects on brokenness as a catalyst for healing through stories about her experiences as a doctor and hospital administrator. In this time that can be so painful, it’s good to be reminded that the challenges we are facing can lead to new beginnings. Her stories encourage readers “to learn to distinguish enabling from helping, codependence from love” and “to pay careful and thoughtful attention to the roots of what makes us healthy.” She takes readers through seemingly impossible and inspirational moments, often overlapping, reminding us that all of our lives impact each other and that that can be a cause for hope.
The Beauty in Breaking particularly resonated for me because the difficult moment of history we are living through is reflected in so many of the challenging situations that Harper navigates throughout the book. Through her own struggles, she lifts up the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” She considers devastation to be “a crossroads with a choice: to remain in the ashes or to forge ahead unburdened,” and believes that the hardest moments can serve as “an opening for reflection.” Her willingness to see the hope in hardship led me to feel ready to accept the complexities of life in a global pandemic and a racial justice reckoning.
As the title suggests, the book is full of inspiration. I began annotating as early as the dedication: “To the truth tellers and the truth seekers; to those who live honestly now and to the others who will one day; and last, but not least, to those courageous enough to love in a way that only creates freedom.” I loved her reflections on all we can learn from the resilience of children and the lesson that with so many things, “First it will be challenging, and then you’ll be free.”
I also appreciated her reflection on the contracts we make with ourselves and the fact that we are not beholden to the contracts others make with themselves, noting about a particularly difficult patient: “His contract has nothing to do with mine unless I allow it to.” She believes that healing happens when people are willing to reflect upon and remain open to what best serves them.
As someone who is dedicated to building the Beloved Community, I found the book’s focus on all of our interconnectedness quite powerful. Harper paints a full picture of these connections—those that benefit us and those that injure us. She notes that hospital staff often end up hurt by the choices their patients make. She suggests that all of us should accept the trauma of veterans as ours to hold alongside them. She addresses how healing happens through connections, noting that “By healing ourselves, we heal each other. By healing each other, we heal ourselves” and that “unconditional love . . . is where healing happens.” The book made me excited about joining together with others to build a more just and loving world.
Harper describes healing—her own as well as her support of those in her care—as a form of social action. She takes pride in her successes and owns and learns from her mistakes. She writes, “Brokenness can be a remarkable gift. If we allow it, it can expand our space to transform.” Harper believes, as do I, that we are transformed when we honor the light in ourselves and each other.
Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, an attender of Durham (N.C.) Meeting, and the upper school head at Carolina Friends School.