In Japan there is an ancient art form called kintsugi in which broken objects, rather than being thrown out, are reconstructed with liquid gold – the precious metal holding the broken pieces together like glue. Kintsugi is based on the belief that “fractures don’t represent the end of the object’s life, but an essential moment in its history” (“Kintsugi: the Art of Embracing Damage”). The purpose of kintsugi is to reveal how mended objects can be more beautiful than their original, pristine forms. Kintsugi bears witness to an often-neglected truth: that brokenness can be a powerful medium for transformation. It’s simply a question of how the pieces are put back together.

In the fall of 2013 I started writing the Peace Heroes program, which took me three years to complete. Last year, my fourth year working on this project, I set the writing aside and threw myself headlong into the development of other aspects of the program, including launching a pilot program in seven other schools, but also doing things like building a (very simple) website, networking with organizations near and far, keeping up a blog and social media page, and trying my hand at a thousand other things that were (and are) utterly out of my realm of knowledge and expertise. In other words, it was a year that completely took me out of my comfort zone, out of the areas that I am good at, and threw me into things I found challenging, at best (though perhaps agonizing is a better word to describe what these tasks felt like much of the time). Yes, it was a year of constant learning; but it was also a year of constant failure (if at first you don’t succeed, try try again. And again, and again and again). It was a year that completely sapped me of all my confidence, and with it, my energy, drive, and motivation. In many ways, it was a year that broke me.

But even as I grappled with the many practical and emotional challenges associated with the peace project, and especially when I felt like walking away and saying “No more!” I would sometimes hear a small voice in the back of my head whispering, “but their challenges were so much harder. And did they ever just walk away?” “They,” of course, are the people I spent three years writing about. The people we celebrate today for their remarkable forbearance and tenacity in the face of hardships far greater than anything I could ever imagine. I had internalized their victories (and this is what I spent so much time promoting). But somehow I had failed to grasp one of the key ingredients in all their stories: that every single one of them emerged from an experience of brokenness.

After all, how many of these people began their journey after the loss of a loved one? Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, for example, who saw his three daughters and niece being torn to shreds by tank fire; or Rigoberta Menchu, who lost most of her family to disease, starvation, and army brutality long before she rose to prominence; Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin, who experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when they buried their young daughters, one of whom was killed by a suicide bomber and the other by a soldier’s bullet; or Mariead Corrigan, whose world was turned on its head when her sister and her sister’s three children were run over and killed by a car escaping the police? And how many of these men and women were imprisoned and even tortured for their convictions? People like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, but also Ghaffar Kahn, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Tawakkol Karman, Rosa Parks, Lilian Ngoyi, Kwame Nkrumah, Corrie ten Boom, and Vaclav Havel, among many others. And what about the many who witnessed untold atrocities in countries ravaged by war and conflict – people like Leymah Gbowee, Betty Bigombe, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jawdat Said? You don’t live through experiences like that without being shattered by them. I have no doubt that every one of the peace heroes was a broken person in a broken society when he or she made the choices that we celebrate today.

This brokenness, in and of itself, is not extraordinary (pain is no respecter of persons; it levels the playing field, and highlights one of the many things we all hold in common, as human beings). What is extraordinary is the way each of these women and men chose to grapple with their brokenness and rise from the ashes of their lives. You see, the program is not in the business of idealizing (or idolizing) people. Rather, the people whose stories are represented here are ordinary women and men who made extraordinary choices, given the circumstances they were in. They were not superheroes. They were broken people who somehow found the courage to rise above their pain in order to bring an end to the suffering of so many others around them.

Nobody wants to be broken. But we live in a world that tends to break us, whether we want it to or not. Brokenness, in many ways, is one of those universal experiences. It matters little which country you are from, what your nationality is, your gender, your skin color, your socio-economic status, your political leanings – no one is immune to pain. Sure, our brokenness can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and at varying degrees of intensity (a crack here; a complete shattering there). But the bottom line is that it comes. What differentiates us in the end isn’t our brokenness, but rather what we choose to do with it. The people we applaud and admire are those who, through their pain, are moved to compassion – propelled to action on behalf of everyone’s pain, not just their own. It is looking beyond themselves and seeing the pain of others that makes these people’s stories so beautiful. For compassion, like gold, has the power to remake a shattered world. And it is this that makes their actions – and ours – heroic.

While we cannot undo our brokenness, we can, perhaps, remake it into something beautiful. I have to remind myself of this often: that beauty comes when we look beyond ourselves and courageously lean into the pain of the world around us. It is only then that I can start to pick up the broken pieces and, through my choices and actions, begin to mend.