At the start of the pandemic, I began searching around for a complicated word that would express the idea that I was basically fine but also utterly shattered (I assumed the German language has a word to accommodate this vague concept for reasons I cannot at present identify). I never found such a word, but my friend and teacher Tamara recently proffered the phrase “broken but blessed.” Her phrasing gets close to describing the feeling: that sense that you can personally be surviving but also that nothing is actually OK. This is all separate and apart from the language of “privilege” or “languishing” or “behavioral activating.”
What I meant, looking back, is that I knew the feeling that I was “OK” was tenuous. The world around me could get worse, but at the same time I also couldn’t imagine things devolving any further.
Then everything got worse.
Last week’s Uvalde, Texas, shootings, coming in the wake of the Buffalo, New York, massacre; last month’s assault on women’s health and liberty; the resurgence of a toxic assault on LGBTQ people and their rights finally made me crave the language to describe my even worse feeling of being cracked and also now completely broken.
As I struggled to reassemble myself to at least write something about the school shooting in Texas, I reminded myself that broken but also broken is akin to “hopeless,” and that I was not prepared to be that either. In any march toward authoritarianism, fostering a broad sense of public hopelessness is very much the point. As Amanda Marcotte noted last week, once a majority of any population has fundamentally given up on politics, on institutions, on voting and education and protest, you’re in pretty good shape to be rolled by the next wave of Trumpism.
“You may support abortion rights and gun safety laws, but why give over a beautiful Saturday morning to a protest when you believe it will not move the needle? It’s not ‘selfish’ to want to use your free time enjoying your life instead, not when you are starting to believe that political action is a flat-out waste of time,” as she so aptly put it.
Looking for a word to express the need for action and hope, when we are struggling to even move, last Friday, I put out a social media plea for the word that best captures the sentiment that we should tend to our broken hearts while also mustering the strength and courage to keep fighting in the face of the inexorable pull of normalcy and self-care.
Out of nowhere, another friend, Laura, swooped down and offered up what I’d been searching for: a Yiddish word (of course), tzebrokhnkayt, which means, she explained, “the quality of brokenheartedness that gives strength in healing.” The notion is unpacked further here, but at its essence it means that “we each carry our shattered pieces with us.” The essential bit is that tzebrokhnkayt is not something in need of quick fixing; it is instead honored. It means that we are obligated to gather up, tend to, and honor the pain, but also to take up the work of healing. My friends Ron and Carolyn confirmed that it’s a real word. And my friend Dahna turned the word into a prescription: “Let’s not be OK. Let’s find power in not being OK. Let’s honor our brokenness—and the brokenness of our country—by finding the collective strength to fight for change.”
What does it mean, the opposing imperative of honoring the feeling of being shattered, while gathering up whatever is left to work harder?
I have found a few comforting examples of this paradox at work in other moments of political darkness. One of the readings I have consumed almost compulsively this past year is in this account by Samantha Rose Hill of the summer of 1940, during which Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher were forced to wait in Montauban, France, after fleeing a Nazi internment camp, to receive emergency U.S. exit visas (only 238 were granted between June and December of 1941). Despite the fact that they were being pursued by actual Nazis and the threat of death, Arendt and Blücher spent their time tooling around the glorious French countryside on bikes and reading good novels. They weren’t normalizing. They weren’t in denial. They were simply getting what enjoyment they could out of their lives as they did the arduous political work of trying to make the world better. In her account, Hill explains that Arendt had long abandoned the idea of “hope” but embraced instead the necessity of what she later called “natality,” the idea of political action on Earth. In “natality,” Arendt located a “principle of new beginnings, the root of political action, and the possibility of freedom.”
Amid all the shattering brokenness, in politics lay the seeds of repair.
This week, after every mass shooting, I’ve found myself wondering what it means when Sen. Ted Cruz excoriates people for “politicizing” suffering after a massacre, even as he himself stands at a press conference to do the same. How insane that we cannot politicize the pain and loss of a school shooting, but it’s permissible and even necessary to politicize the worst moments of a woman’s private pain—her pregnancy losses and her ectopic pregnancies and her decision to give up a baby she cannot support. These moments of excruciating sorrow are debated in amicus briefs and at oral arguments at the Supreme Court. But we may not politicize children assassinated in their classrooms. Pain is always political. It’s just that we allow politics and politicians to decide whose pain counts and whose does not.
These acts of repair, of holding the pain of others and refusing to be told how and when to put that pain down, are politics. At times like these, politics are all we have left, and that is enough. Which brings me to another sustaining line of thought that seems to be built exclusively of tzebrokhnkayt. In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, who had also seen the very worst of human moral failures as a World War II Air Force bombardier, wrote this:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
It turns out, we do not, in fact, require a complicated German or Yiddish word or a complex philosophical descriptor to explain the wearying condition of being ripped apart, heartsick and furious, stabilized to the point of near-sanity, before launching back into the fight, shattered but still awake and still committed. This is just what life is now. We take care of one another and ourselves to go on to do the work. We can bike, read, plant our gardens, organize, vote, march, donate, and be kind. We can call it “pain” or “politics” or “self-care,” or tzebrokhnkayt. But the fact remains that the future depends on this “infinite succession of presents.” Finding ways to marry the brokenness to the work is a part of the work itself.