How to live in the world?

That image of an impossibly small lifeless body lying on the beach is seared into my brain. I wanted to look away but couldn’t because I couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Since seeing that small body washed up on a beach I wake up in the morning with tears leaking from my eyes and wondering how we have come to this. How have we fallen so low that a child dies because no one will give him shelter and protection? And I can’t find any answers.

I know others who get angry and want to fight and rally about the state of things but I just get sad and cry quietly and want to go off to a dark cave and never come back. I want to turn away from humanity.

More than anything I want to live a peaceful life. But I don’t know how to live a peaceful life and live in the world.


Last year I reached my sorrow saturation level, like a plimsoll line on a ship, and I felt myself sinking. So I walked away from the world.

All health and helping professionals immerse themselves in human suffering. Sometimes we have to face the powerlessness inherent in working with people, because there are times when there’s nothing you can do, we can’t help. Then the best we can do is stay present to someone and not look away, not try to pretend it will all be ok, but let ourselves be with them in their pain so they know they are less alone. It doesn’t seem like much, but it can break your heart.

To survive in your work, you learn to dance between hardening your heart and letting it break open, and in the still point between the two, is presence.

Too much hardening your heart and you become brittle and slip into “compassion fatigue” or burnout. But if you don’t protect your tender heart it can pop, explode into a thousand pieces.

One day you hear a crack, and you look up from your desk and wonder what that near sound was. Then slowly you notice it, sometimes weeks or even years later, you’re leaking, slowly sinking. Your soul, your essence, your sense of self has ebbed away, your creativity has leached out of your bones, you can’t remember the last time you laughed or let someone touch you deeply. Or everything makes you cry, but it’s not that good crying where you feel some relief at the end. It’s the crying, like a house with rising damp that keeps coming and coming, “till human voices wake us, and we drown” (T.S Eliot).

Most good health professionals I know walk that fine line between caring deeply in their work and protecting their tender-open heart. That’s the challenge of being a psychologist or a GP, a social worker or a nurse, a cop or ambulance driver. And the ones who want to keep their heart tender have to take a break at times, because the heart gets burnt and cracked, by too much caring.

And like recovery from any firestorm, or battering, it takes some time for the heart to mend, before the green shoots, that surprise capacity for life to recover – that’s always there beneath the blackened stump – comes back. And the heart sings again and dances and laughs in the bright shadow of the rainbow.

But this challenge of living open hearted, not being burnt or sunk by the pain and sorrow of the world is now a challenge for everyone, every day, in an almost imperceptible way. Because each day we are all witness to the close-up suffering of humanity, and the powerlessness that goes with it.

How can we stay open to the world and not be overwhelmed or broken by it?

There is no escaping suffering. Life is suffering. The only question is how we deal with it when it comes.

I don’t know how to live in this world, how to live wide-open-hearted and keep meeting the suffering that’s everywhere. The hardest part of watching so much suffering is the powerlessness that goes with it. It’s the powerlessness that brings the deepest ache. Yes you can give money, rally, write about it, but sometimes the best we can do is hold the hand of those in pain, and sometimes that means holding our own hand.


When I think about the dead child on the beach my words sink into silence. But there’s a wailing in my soul, a lone voice in a wild night calling out to the universe, “Noooo, it’s not fair. How can you let a child die like that?” I don’t know who I’m calling to. I know that no one is listening. But the wail is there anyway. And then, there’s the quiet voice tugging at my knee, asking: what can I do? Asking: how do we live open-hearted and walk in the world?

Because when we close our heart to pain we also close it to the beauty and wonder of this precious life. And we shut out this strange, terrible and wonderful world that we call home, and this crazy family called humanity.

Opening and closing the heart, moving in and stepping back from the world, that is the dance of life and it begins with our own life. Doing what we can with those nearest us.

So I look up at my own small life to see where I can be more compassionate, kinder, more willing to open my heart. Because I know, in the end, that is the first life I must save if I want to live fully in the world.


Go gently my friend. And remember to reach out for what nourishes your heart to buffer against the hard knocks that will surely come. Find your quiet seat in the shade and watch the blue wren hop from twig to leaf, listen to the children laughing on the swings, and let the warm breeze caress your cheek to let the wonder in.


“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…..

…… Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.”

Mary Oliver, from Wild Geese


(Photo: sunrise at Braidwood NSW)



Leave a Reply