To say that the last year has been one of breaking, of brokenness—broken systems, broken lives, broken promises—would be an understatement.
So it felt particularly timely that, for The Citizen’s kickoff event of the new year, our guest was Dr. Michele Harper, an emergency room physician and author of The New York Times-best selling memoir, The Beauty in Breaking (which you can order through our bookstore partner for the event, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books).
In conversation with WURD radio host and Citizen contributor Charles Ellison, Harper spoke candidly about growing up in an abusive household, her heart wrenching divorce, the racism that plagues health care, and her journey to healing.
Along the way, the Philly resident—a superstitious yoga devotee, lover of horror films, reader of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Isabel Wilkerson, among others—espoused some of the profound lessons she’s learned in medicine, in life, in love. Here are just six of them.
Challenges are opportunities to become more resilient: Dr. Harper said that she was motivated to write her book because she wanted to explore the journeys of healing and transformation. “In life, there will always be challenges. That’s part of living,” she said. “And I wanted to look at, well, what happens, how do we handle that, and how do we come through it?”
Harper was clear that she never wants to romanticize challenges, but that she feels like “there’s always the possibility to become more resilient through them.”
She certainly couldn’t have predicted the global events that would be taking place when her book debuted last summer, but the timing, she said, was interesting. “We were open as a society, I feel, to have these discussions, as we were all being brought to the brink in different ways and in this space where we’re thinking, ok, so what do we do?”
Writing can be cathartic: Harper shared that, inevitably, her most original writing would come to her in the middle of the night. She’d light incense, put on ambient music, and get to work.
And particularly while writing the most traumatic parts of her story, she found writing to be “quite cathartic,” she said. “What I found as I was exploring some difficult experiences was that it was a moment of reliving it. So any aspects of it that I didn’t fully address […] came flooding back and flooding through me,” she said.
The beauty of the process was that once she was done writing a chapter, she was really done. “It took the healing that much deeper, it was that much more expansive in that way.”
We choose how to repair ourselves—and it can be beautiful: Harper is a fan of kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing the cracks in broken pottery with an amalgam of precious metals—platinum, silver, gold.
“The thinking is that we want to highlight, we don’t want to ignore what has happened to this vessel. It has been changed by the mutability of life. And we are going to repair it—that’s true—and it is that much more beautiful for what it has come through,” she said. “And I see humans, myself and other people, in that same way. That we do have some choice in how we repair ourselves. And that we can be that much more beautiful afterwards.”
She said that she also finds power in channeling our healing experiences into being a support structure for others who want to heal. “If we do that, we can uplift society,” she said.
Health care is not immune to bigotry: Harper shared many unsettling anecdotes about racism in health care—from white medical trainees undermining her authority and the autonomy of their Black patients, to her manager nonchalantly explaining that—despite being the only candidate, perfectly qualified and having aced her interview—she’d been denied a promotion because Black people and women simply didn’t advance in that workplace, to a backlash against health care workers who speak out against discrimination and inequality.
“If that is the culture, then what is the nature of the care you expect to be given to patients? The culture needs to change,” she said.
Every experience comes with a lesson: “That’s generally my philosophy on life, that every experience and interaction—again, even if it’s unpleasant—has something to be learned from it,” she said. She recalled a patient with widely metastatic cancer whose response to his diagnosis blew her away: He told her how he had lived the way he wanted to, that he didn’t know if he was going to pursue any aggressive treatments, and that no matter what happened next, he was at peace.
“I thought to myself in that moment, that is probably one of the most difficult moments a person can have, when they have just received that kind of diagnosis. And if he could deal with it with such poise, then certainly I, while—to my knowledge—have my health and shelter and food, have my basic needs met, that difficulties I’m facing, I could handle as well. It’s moments like those that are so powerful, even the quiet ones like that, that can really direct towards grace,” she said.
Divorce is great: “At the time it was really difficult. I had to figure out what does it mean when life has other plans?” she said. “It was one of those moments of breaking where it was the loss of dreams, the loss of stories, and then having to figure out okay, well, what is intended for me and where do I go from there?” The process of healing from her divorce was, Harper said, excruciating—but she said, it allowed her to ultimately live her authentic life, for which she is grateful.
“I feel there are times when as we learn, the lessons get deeper. Even when we think we’ve learned something, there are opportunities to learn that much more. And I guess in that way life, in my opinion, doesn’t get easier, but I think we get a little quicker on the uptake. So then it can be more fulfilling.”
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