I received an email from one of my current book coaching clients a few weeks back that included an attachment with words by poet, David Whyte. It more-than captivated and provoked me.

Whyte speaks to three illusions that keep us from fully inhabiting the pilgrimage that is our life, that keep us from living fully.

  • The first illusion is that I can somehow construct a life in which I am not vulnerable.
  • The second illusion is that I can construct a life in which I will not have my heart broken.
  • The third illusion is that I can somehow plan enough and arrange things that I will be able to see the path to the end right from where I’m standing, right to the horizon.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that David Whyte is right: these three things ARE illusions.

Let’s also acknowledge that despite our awareness of just how obvious these illusions are, we keep trying to outwit them.

We don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to have our heart broken. And we do want to plan and arrange everything so that we can see the end from the beginning.


I could talk about WHY we are so determined to outwit these illusions, but I’m guessing you know the answer(s) as well as I do. Instead, what I’m curious about what it looks like, instead, to acknowledge them as true and thereby, to Whyte’s point, inhabit the pilgrimage of our own life and live fully.

I am vulnerable.

My determination to remain impervious to vulnerability has been one of the biggest sources of pain in my life. In an effort to keep a stiff upper lip, believe that “all things work together for good,” and not let anyone see me as broken or imperfect, I have kept myself from grieving, from acknowledging harm, from extending myself (and others) grace, from believing that I am enough and not too much.

It took me a long time (and lots of therapy) to trust myself enough to be vulnerable. Ironically (and of course) it was giving myself permission to cry, to feel, and to let go that invited a life that finally began to resemble something full, instead of compartmentalized, cold, and exhausting. I was, for one of the first times, whole and present and raw and alive and honest and “real” in my own life.

I still struggle. Years of conditioning are hard to undo. A culture that demands (and promises) happy faces and silver linings is hard to argue with. And the fear of being hurt even more by choosing tenderness, honesty, and openness (translate: vulnerability) remains.

But these days, I far prefer the wisdom and graciousness of vulnerability over the disconnect and weariness I felt in protecting myself from such.

I will have my heart broken.

I have been heartbroken many, many times. Certainly in the context of my marriage (which, in many ways, ended because of my vulnerability), in other significant relationships, and by a world that is more broken than I can bear. I cannot possibly construct a life in which heartbreak is not a thing. Nor would I want to.

Like vulnerability, heartbreak is what tenderizes and softens us. Heartbreak is what invites deep and true wisdom. Heartbreak is what generates resilience and strength. Heartbreak is what makes room for more love (not its absence, which is what we too often fear).

When I look back (which is really the only way to have any perspective whatsoever), I can see that the things, people, and circumstances that have broken my heart have been the very things that thankfully shattered the illusions I was determined to perpetuate: that all was well, that the good would outweigh the bad, that I was too much, that my silence was safer than speaking out…

Heartbreak opens me to what is true, to a life that is full and honest. Not all at once, not once and for all, but heartbreak by heartbreak, over and over again.

I cannot plan and arrange everything (maybe anything at all) in order to see the end from the beginning.

I am a planner. Lists. Pros and cons. Spreadsheets. Goals. Tracking apps on my phone. A countdown calendar. As a “J” in the Myers-Briggs world, I want everything ordered, organized, and nailed down. “A place for everything and everything in its place.” You get the idea (and can imagine what this was like for my girls when they were growing up). So this one? The illusion of thinking I can plan and arrange everything in order to predict and make possible the ending I desire? Aaaaaaugh!

It’s actually the two illusions above — both shattered — that have helped me with this one the most.

Vulnerability has slowed me down, kept me from demanding that everything (and everyone) go to plan, and invited (sometimes forced) me to live my life in a place of unknown, of mystery, of not demanding answers. I’ve learned (with some reluctance) that spreadsheets are not applicable, helpful, or even needed when tears and grief and honest emotion is present.

Heartbreak has been a reminder, time and again, that I’m not in control the way I think I am. No matter my attempts to resist it, to protect myself from it, to pretend in the most brilliant of ways that all is well, it crashes in anyway.

At this point in my life, closer to its end than its beginning (which is a very odd thing to realize and say), I have far fewer ideas or demands about how everything is “supposed” to work out anyway. Most days I am appreciative of this — glad and grateful to loosen my grip on making things happen and planning for every contingency and trying to outwit and out run the unknown.

Deepak Chopra is right: “Most people talk about fear of the unknown, but if there is anything to fear, it is the known.”

And Anne Lamott: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

It’s a lot to think about. Actually, maybe a better way of naming all of this is to NOT think quite so much and instead let ourselves feel . . . vulnerability, heartbreak, and the reality of the unknown.

May it be so.


If my writing resonates, I’d be honored if you’d subscribe to A Sunday Letter. Long-form, from me to you, every week. Learn more.