Blessings of a broken heart

Squaring the circle of grief and heartbreak

“SITTING IN THE CIRCLE: Sacred Observations from the Heart and Other Internal Organs” (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013) is a thing of beauty in multiple senses of the word. As a work of father and son, it celebrates the warmth and beauty of intergenerational connection and cooperation. The author, Jon Berenson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in solo practice in Providence; his son Ari, a graphic designer, has provided abundant illustrations.

The layout of the book catches the eye: every page is an 8 1/2 inch by 8 1/2 inch square. When the book is opened, each of Berenson’s 37 short vignette-like essays – with one exception – fills all or part of the page on the right; most of the facing pages on the left feature an illustration by his son to complement his father’s text. Right page and left, father and son, speak to each other in pregnant silence. An occasional evocative photograph adds just enough variety to the format.

Berenson explains in his introduction that he has chosen “SITTING IN THE CIRCLE” as the title of his book in order to emphasize the profound significance of his 33 years as participant and senior leader in the Opening the Heart Workshop weekend programs, a creative approach to group therapy: “Every session during the weekend starts and ends with a circle … Friday night many people look around into each other’s eyes and I see a lot of fear and regret about having made the decision to attend … By Sunday morning a true miracle has happened. The power of having the heart break open in a group setting … is one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. The circle is an enduring symbol of community, wholeness and healing.”

Except for “A Valentine’s Day Story,” which Berenson calls “a spoof of a spoof,” all of the essays have previously appeared on the website for the Opening the Heart Workshop.

Much of his writing draws upon deeply painful human experiences. In “Wounds,” for example, he tells of Carolyn, who has just witnessed the burial of her 25-year-old son, David: “Usually, some people take a shovelful of dirt and place it on the lowered coffin, and then leave. But this day, because so many people were there, everyone shoveled, until the grave was filled  – and then I saw something that I will store in my memory always. Carolyn stood on the graveside, got down on her hands and knees and smoothed the ground for David’s final resting place.”

Berenson comments that when he meets Carolyn now, he sees in the lines of her face “a sadness that is soul deep.”  Nevertheless, he perceives in the depths of such sorrow the opportunity to learn how to become a kinder and more loving person. More than once, he quotes from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/One must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

Certain other phrases and themes recur like a leitmotif throughout the book. Thus we hear again and again the words of the songwriter and folksinger Bob Franke: “What can you do with each moment of your life but love ’til you love it away – love ’til you love it away.”  Berenson, whose role as a clinical psychologist has made him well acquainted with grief, stresses that one of the most emotionally effective ways to respond to life’s slings and arrows, to all that breaks our hearts, is to learn how to love more deeply, to love more completely.

Berenson introduces his 24th entry, “Giving Thanks,” with the words, “I have heard that the highest form of prayer is giving gratitude.”  He goes on to relate how personally difficult it has been for him to integrate into his daily routine the practice of “giving thanks for my life.”  After repeated failed attempts to make the act of thanksgiving a regular aspect of his life, he finally succeeds by expressing his gratitude before each and every meal.

It seems to me that he has learned to say ha-motsi with intentionality. He is participating – knowingly or unknowingly – in the ancient rabbinic regimen of meah b’rachot, of saying 100 blessings every day in order to foster an ongoing attitude of gratitude.

In reading and rereading “SITTING IN THE CIRCLE,” I have been struck by its sense of pervasive gentleness, the sense of the milk of human kindness flowing through these pages. Berenson’s words are often filled with sadness, but they are uplifting nevertheless; for he has the gift of enabling the reader to move beyond a feeling of sadness to a feeling of healing, a feeling of thankfulness, a feeling of blessing for a life well lived.