The foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart


A friend was telling me the other day that the recent sadnesses in his own life (the death of his best friend, a cancer diagnosis for him) had torn open his heart to the sadnesses of people everywhere, known and unknown. He feels overwhelmed, he said, and he doesn’t think he can stand to care so deeply.

Gently I told him that such breaches into a more oceanic compassion are good things. They drag us out of preoccupation with our own problems and heartaches and surround us with other living beings. We see, then, that we are not alone, that suffering is a great wave that constantly rolls in and out of the living world, and we ourselves are no better or worse or different from any other. Even though it seems our heart will break from such immensity, it is actually through the cracks that beauty, kindness, and even joy can flow.

There is a poem by W.B. Yeats that has guided me ever since I first encountered it as a senior in high school. It is called “The Circus Animals Desertion,” and it ends with these lines:

Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Whenever my heart is broken, when I feel at the end of my rope, when I am sure I’ll never recover from this particular blow, I remember those lines and they tell me that I am in the one right place, the only place I need to be in order to recover.
The rag-and-bone shop is a place that sells the oldest, most threadbare of materials that no one wants anymore. When we’re stuck there, we find there’s no door, no escape. The ladder of distraction and diversion is gone. In Yeats’s poem, that place is the heart. And there is no way out of that moldy, dank place except by surrendering to the sorrow until a new ladder materializes out of the suffering.