Broken Angel

At the counseling center where I worked in Manhattan for a number of years as a psychotherapist, I had a minor specialization in an obscure item in the diagnostic manual known by its v-code as “religious or spiritual problem.” Clients whose religious or spiritual upbringing or involvement interfered with their emotional, mental, or spiritual well-being came to me for help and I was glad to provide however much of it I could. One of my very dearest clients had what I called “double trouble”. She had been raised in a strict household in a religiously repressive tradition constrained by moral absolutes, radical intolerance, and punishing parenting; in an attempt to escape it, she found her way into another faith community that she later came to characterize as a cult, which she eventually exited with remarkable courage and clarity. We’ll call her Sandy, which is not her name. These choices cost Sandy a great deal, personally, but proved worth it in the end, given the spiritual and emotional freedom she won for herself. 

Because she was someone who was obviously built for devotion, though, Sandy dedicated herself to the the therapeutic process. The first December we worked together, she brought me a small gift for the holidays, a Christmas ornament — which before I even finished unwrapping she announced was broken. I soon saw how. Oddly, Sandy had bought it that way at one of the craft fairs in a nearby park; she told me that because of that, she’d gotten a good discount. Not only was the ornament broken, but the box it came in was, too. Inside the warped box with the lid that did not quite fit was an angel whose halo had snapped off and string had come loose. Sandy told me that she loved that angel at first sight. I did, too, with an intensity and immediacy that surprised me. More than a decade later, I have the broken angel sitting in a places of pride on my shelves, alongside the warped box; both testify to the bold wisdom of imperfection. 

In his book, The Road to Tolerance: The Philosophy of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, psychologist Albert Ellis sums up the insights he gleaned from decades of practicing the therapeutic method he dubbed REBT. While he spent most of his early years railing against the errors of religion and spirituality and touting the benefits of psychology and philosophy, nearer to the end of his life, he came to recognize the considerable overlap across domains. All of these influence mightily what we believe to be true about ourselves, one another, and the world we share. The rational and emotive were mutually informing, he explained. The problem for the unhappiest among us, he explained, were that their core beliefs were deeply irrational. Once we recognize that, we can correct some of their distorting effects. “We are, and admit we are, very fallible,” Dr. Ellis contended, “as humans, not being gods, should be. By admitting this, we make ourselves much stronger.” These days, we all need to be a bit stronger, don’t we?

Dr. Ellis recognized patterns that he termed the “major musts”. The “major musts” tell us that people and things must be perfect if we are to be spared unending misery in our lives. Those “major musts” are not only lies; they are also recipes for interpersonal disaster. Honestly! Who or what do you know in your own lives to be perfect? How long can they remain that way? Why is that even an expectation that any of us harbors? 

According to Dr. Ellis, our best hopes for happiness involve us surrendering our irrational ideas and major musts and adopting a more philosophical outlook centered on acceptance. This asks us to embrace three increasingly tolerant attitudes: firstly, unconditional acceptance of ourselves as we are; secondly, unconditional acceptance of others as they are; and finally, unconditional acceptance of life on its own terms, as opposed to our personal preferences. In these attitudes, Dr. Ellis sees similarities among teachings from the Buddhist, Jewish, Taoist, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Embracing such a spiritual orientation seems to improve everyone’s mental and emotional welfare. It not only makes us better, healthier people — it makes us good for one another, kinder and more accommodating of our frailties and foibles, rather a great deal more compassionate.

The twice fallen Sandy was first rejected by her family and then by the friends in the faith community she came to recognize as a cult, but somehow remained amazingly and unfailingly kind, warm and receptive. She went into a successful career in the arts and embraced all sorts of diverse people she had been taught were outside the reach of grace, which is by its nature boundless. Although she had stopped going to church, she still had a rich religious life. In our sessions, she was fond of quoting one of her favorite lines from scripture: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” Nor should anything try to separate from love itself, she concluded, love divine, love amongst us, and I agreed. So of course Sandy could not let a broken angel be cast away ahead of a holiday, and she intuited that I would appreciate the emotional logic behind that. 

Sandy’s was not an impulse purchase nor an trifling gift. Instead, it gave witness to her wise life orientation, one that Dr. Ellis would consider supremely rational. We live in such a polarized time in this nation, a time of emotional extremes, when far too many people are convinced of other’s villainy, when it awful each time our side does not prevail, when we never question whether our own attitudes might be damaging to the good of the whole, when we neglect to manage our individual upset and own how larger realities effect our lives. We have come to consider our various truths as absolutes, and we regard these truths as mutually exclusives instead of mutually informing. It’s hard to tolerate complexity, and we tempted to not even try. We have all kinds of cults we could join, secular and sectarian alike. These days, I am grateful for the brave (and dare I say, reasonable?) few who reach across our lines of deepest division and somehow stay centered in their values at the same time. No matter how fragmented our world gets, we always have the option to seek wholeness. 

While I am no longer Sandy’s therapist, and haven’t been for years, I think of her often and wish her well and recall her each time I see that angel on my bookshelf at home. Each December, especially, I am grateful for that touching gift she gave me. Over the years and in the course of moving various offices and houses, I learned how tie that snapped string from the angel around its loose halo so the two would not be separated and nothing would be lost. Every once in a while, when I see that halo coming off kiter, I weave the end of the string in a little tighter. That angel Sandy gave me will never fly. It will never hang from the tree in an ornamental way. The angel is rather a remarkably humble and honest one. It only stands, steady and grounded, its wings unfurled in defiant embrace of all that is as it is, showing me a simple posture that is both emotionally intelligent and spiritually mature, gesturing that such openness can be mine to assume, as well, at any time certainly, but most advisedly now. 

Failed and Fruitful Utopias

Because we recently relocated to the area, my husband Ben and I spent a lot of the past summer exploring areas in New England, traveling to New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. It gave us a better sense of the region, but we sometimes just visited sites in our state. One day, when we had plans to meet friends at the Fruitlands Museum, Ben had to bow out, which was disappointing for us both. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “There are no shortages of failed utopias in Massachusetts. There will most definitely be other opportunities for you here.”

Like the fabled Fruitlands, some of these nineteenth-century utopias had the significant participation of American Transcendentalists, whose ideals were usually some combination of inspiring and infuriating for their neighbors. Fruitlands was a fairly short-lived experiment; it lasted only a matter of months, when it became clear that this farm in central Massachusetts could not remain self-sufficient through the winter.

Eventually Louisa May Alcott wrote a parody of her father’s farming project that became a book titled Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from An Unwritten Romance. This thinly veiled autobiographical account of their family’s time at Fruitlands ends with her mother telling her father, “Don’t you think ‘Apple Slump’ would be a better name for it, dear!” Clearly the author thought so herself.


It’s easy to make utopian communities the subject of satire, but I think we ought to resist the temptation to do that too quickly. As my friends and I wandered the museum grounds, we saw how the beautiful site itself could inspire visions. A student I had met from the chaplaincy at Wellesley College was working at Fruitlands over the summer and it was surprisingly pleasant to see her there. She allowed how enjoyable it was to do any job in such a lovely spot.

As we toured the historic house where the Alcotts lived, the museum guide soon deduced that all of us in our group of three were Unitarian clergy. Within minutes, she was telling us a story of her involvement several years ago with a local church that had left her disillusioned with congregational life. These accounts are more commonly occurring than most of us generally care to admit and also quite informative. We suffer failures large and small.

Our faith communities lift up high ideals that we struggle to realize in our lives — that does not make those ideals false, though. The boldness of utopian communities (there were more than 100 of them across the U.S. in the 1800s) was that a group of people committed to living together according to unusual expectations of one another, expectations that were spiritual and social in equal measure. While these communities rarely survived long, they did introduce imaginative possibilities for communal life.

At Fruitlands, pioneering ideas formed around environmentalism, education, and gender equality; in time, these would become increasingly influential around America. Social reformers such as Henry David Thoreau — himself a close friend of Alcott — found inspiration in the experiments that the farm residents had attempted. Instead of being too unsparing of our appraisal of failed utopias, I wonder if we shouldn’t be more appreciative of all they ventured. They sensed so much potential to tap.

These days, most of us inhabiting faith communities find ourselves operating in an innovative mode — we are working with newer models of religious education, finding different ways to use media and technology, and adopting a fresh approach to the social actions we take on behalf of greater justice. Whether or not our experiments succeed, it matters that we are willing to run them. As one wag has observed, we tend to forget that Icarus flew for a little while before he fell.

At the turn of the calendar year, when our minds turn to New Year’s resolutions, we might start to feel some loftiness rising within ourselves; perhaps that merits our indulgence. We human beings tend to be future-forward creatures. In his compelling history Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, Chris Jennings writes that “the tens of thousands of Americans who lived in these communities were not fools…. [these] utopians hoped to construct the perfect society in miniature and then lead by example — to pull, rather than push, the world toward perfection.” Of course they failed. After all, on this side of glory, where does perfection permanently reside?

Yet what I admire about those long-ago residents of Fruitlands and Hopedale and Brook Farm and the rest of the storied sites in this Commonwealth was that they dared to raise their eyes and tried to catch glimpses of glory in their own place and time. So I will resist joining in the snide jokes of cynics and remember that instead. They pulled us ahead. We don’t have count to the days of those utopias existence as failures, whether they spanned months or years. The days were distinctive ones, however many they numbered. Isn’t that what we all hope for in our own lives — days we ourselves can make distinct? There are far worse things we could be than heirs apparent of neighboring idealists.