Tzebrokhnkayt: the quality of broken heartedness that gives strength in healing

When twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members were murdered by a young adult assassin at Sandy Hook ten years ago, I reeled with feelings of rage, sadness, and horror. Yet almost immediately, as an elementary school counselor, I had to put personal feelings aside. Joining the staff and the principal after school that fateful day, I led the discussion concerning our approach to confronting this tragedy with both the parent and student community of our small, rural public school. 

 Not until I arrived home could I allow myself to feel personal anguish — as a parent, an educator, and as a US citizen. Then came my rage, along with despair, disgust, and deep disappointment that gun violence had once again shown its murderous face at school. But I had no choice other than to put aside those personal emotions the following morning upon arrival at my counseling office. Each day, for the next four and a half years before retiring, I’d put on a “brave face” for the sake of both the children and adults at school, all of whom depended on me for emotional support and guidance. 

In the immediate wake of Sandy Hook, I held out hope that our political leaders would rally around the cause of saving lives at school; surely, they’d come together to pass reasonable gun safety laws for that purpose. Now, a decade later, in the wake of another tragic school shooting in Uvalde Texas that took the lives of nineteen students and two teachers, that hope feels wobbly at best; sometimes it veers toward despair.

In an article written a week after the Uvalde massacre, Dahlia Lithwick talks about her search for a word to describe her complicated feelings in its wake. She explains that even though on a personal level she’s surviving well enough, she also feels “utterly shattered.” A friend of hers offered the expression “broken but blessed” as an apt way to describe this dichotomy.

Another friend suggested the Yiddish word 

tzebrokhnkayt, explaining its meaning as “the quality of brokenheartedness that gives strength in healing.” How could this be, I wondered? As I read further, this complex set of feelings began to resonate. As she explains, even though each of us carries “our shattered pieces with us”, or better said, precisely because we do, our goal needn’t be to find a “quick fix.” Brokenhearted by senseless tragedies that take innocent lives in their wake, we are called to summon the courage and strength to (1) recognize the pain and even respect it, even as (2) we work toward healing our brokenness. 

How? Only by working together despite our exhaustion, our fury, our despondency, will this balance be possible.

As the author states in the article’s last paragraph:

This is just what life is now. We take care of one another and ourselves to go on to do the work…finding ways to marry the brokenness to the work is a part of the work itself.

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