The Work of Flourishing

The Work of Flourishing


“As the ancient sages all confirm, everything softens in time. If we want to soften while still alive, we have to bring our hurt places into the light.”

Being Opened

More than 30 years ago, I almost died from a rare form of lymphoma. One of the great lessons from that strident passage is that whatever opens us is never as important as what is opened in us. In truth, we often rail against the unfairness or injustice of what has brutally opened us, which can be true and legitimate. Yet, more than anything, our journey forward depends on how we meet and inhabit what has been opened in us.

Like it or not, everyone and everything changes, and we are challenged to accept the change without being defined by the pain we encounter along the way. This doesn’t mean that we minimize or deny our pain or stop working for justice, but that we meet our pain and move through it into the clearing that life has made within us. I know this is very difficult to take in and work with. All I can say is that being pried open by life has prepared me to keep a vow to stay open to life. And this has made a powerful and tender difference in the kind of life I have been able to live.

Being Broken

Being broken is never fun. No one seeks being broken. No one asks for it. But like erosion, being broken is a developmental phase of growth, not a deficiency. We have stigmatized being broken as a sign of damage or weakness. Yet, mysteriously, it is being broken open that leads to all transformation. Rather than deny or resist this phase of growth, we are called to focus our efforts on mapping the new terrain on the other side of the break. What new way of thinking, feeling, or being are we being led to?

Consider the Grand Canyon, one of the largest broken open spaces on Earth. We save our money in hopes of traveling vast distances to peer into its great emptiness. Yet this natural wonder came into being precisely because the Earth at its core couldn’t hold together. The Earth’s plates split and wonder was the lasting result. So too with us, though it is, of course, understandable that this developmental phase of being broken is painful and hard to endure. Another reason we need each other: to help each other endure the breaking, to help each other enter the vastness opened by the break, and to marvel together at the wonder revealed.

Being Transparent

The question arises, “Is it a good thing to be transparent?” That this is a question at all demonstrates how indoctrinated we are in the art of hiding. When someone says, “I can see right through you” it has the connotation that we are being exposed; that we are being revealed as a phony or a charlatan.

But life has taught me quite the opposite—that there can be no growth or transformation or integrity of relationship unless we are transparent. In his poem, “Self-Protection,” D.H. Lawrence poses the question, Is the best self-protection hiding who you are or being who you are? He goes on to point out that only the creatures wholly and colorfully themselves have survived the centuries. The ones who have been camouflaged have perished.

Of course, there are costs for being seen. We can be hurt, misunderstood, rejected, or fooled. But I have found that the cost of not being who I am, of staying hidden, is more corrosive and damaging to my soul and to my very life-force.

Being transparent allows us to be touched. It brings us closer. It deepens our relationships. When hidden or walled in, we can only reflect life. What approaches us bounces off. When open-hearted, we receive and absorb and are informed more thoroughly by life itself. When transparent, we are warmed and illumined.

All this to say that I would rather be fooled than not believe. The hurts and slights and even embarrassment for being fooled are not pleasant to go through. But when we don’t stay open to being touched by the smallest detail of life—letting it in—we shun the touch of angels along the way.

Being Vulnerable

Even if it takes years, it is important to heal the wounded places so we can recover the full use of our heart. For the parts of our heart that are left wounded and unresolved remain preoccupied and not available for us to use in living. If unprocessed, the wounded places become dark and hard. Being vulnerable allows us to recover our heart, because being vulnerable and tender allows our wounds to soften and heal.

Anger, even when legitimate, will harden if not processed and allowed to soften. Often, when I am angry, it is because I have been hurt. When I can let the anger subside, I discover a sadness beneath it that leads me to examine where I am hurt. When I stay angry, I never let the hurt place soften, and so, it can never heal. When stuck in the anger, I keep feeling the hurt, though I can’t locate and tend the hurt. Untended, my heart becomes heavy where it is hard. Then, I walk around with a diminished heart that weighs me down with the wounded part unavailable to experience life. Staying vulnerable is both a cleansing and healing agent that allows us to become whole again. As the ancient sages all confirm, everything softens in time. If we want to soften while still alive, we have to bring our hurt places into the light.

Breaking Trail

There are a thousand reasons to come and go, to hold and let go. But from our common depth of being, none of them matters. All that matters is that we live in the open so we can hold each other as long as possible.

For breaking trail is not going where no one has gone before, but taking our turn at finding the living center that we have in common with all life by being opened, being broken, being transparent, and being vulnerable. These are the daily practices that bring us alive and keep us alive.

These are the spiritual aerobics that each of us must personalize if we are to truly be here. Aristotle defined a virtue as anything that helps us flourish as a human being, while a vice is anything that impedes us from flourishing. Regardless of what others encourage or caution against, we must each discover what helps us flourish and what thwarts our growth, and then remain dedicated to the work of flourishing.

Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, describe separate moments when you experienced being opened, being broken, being transparent, and being vulnerable. How did these moments differ in their impact on you? How has each helped you flourish or impeded your growth?

  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, begin to tell the story of your life as a trail you discovered along the way. Where has the trail of your life led you? What lessons have you learned about the art of breaking trail?

This excerpt is from Mark’s new book Falling Down and Getting Up, due out from St. Martins’ Essentials, Sept 5, 2023. Available now for preorder. In July, Mark will be offering an online webinar (see and in August, Mark will be teaching at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (

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The Work of Flourishing

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