About Hearts

Morning rose, Trinidad, California

     Have you ever wondered why, having endured misfortune, some individuals – and sometimes whole communities -- are not defeated or embittered by the experience but turn it into an opportunity and a gift? Hearts Broken Open explores this mystery through multimedia stories of resilient spirits who transform tragedy into transcendence even when, in many cases, they continue to live with the very challenges that compelled them to change their minds about life. We hear a great deal in the media and movies about our failure to live up to our expectations of ourselves and one another with often disastrous results. We also see feel-good films about troubled individuals who miraculously escape situations of appalling abuse and degradation. But what about those who in many cases must continue to live with their adverse circumstances but somehow learn how to “make lemons into lemonade,” turning the bitter into a more flavorful blend of bittersweet?

      Join us in this exploration of what enables some of us to grow toward the light not despite what has befallen us but precisely because of it – because we’re able to see our lives not as “one damned thing after another” but as a series of gifts cleverly disguised as misfortunes.

About Founder Mark Sommer

Mark and daughter Maya, Yucatan Peninsula, 2006

      Mark Sommer is an explorer, storyteller and award-winning public radio and print journalist. Until his retirement in 2012, he was host and executive producer of the internationally syndicated, one-hour weekly radio program, A World of Possibilities, which won six international prizes, including one from the United Nations, for its innovative, solution-centered reporting. He is also the founder and former executive director of The Mainstream Media Project, a nonprofit media placement service scheduling leading edge thinkers and social innovators for extensive interviews on local radio stations and national networks on a wide range of issues. He is the author of three books (Beyond the Bomb, The Conquest of War, and Living in Freedom) and hundreds of op-eds in major newspapers worldwide. For the past twenty years his columns have been syndicated by Inter Press Service in Rome, which distributes them in several languages to more than a hundred countries.

     From the seventies to the nineties, he and his wife maintained a self-reliant organic homestead they built in the deep woods of Northern California. Living an hour’s drive from their mailbox, they raised most of their own food and generated electric power from solar panels and micro hydro. Surrounded by wildness, Mark was struck by the resilience of nature in response to the forest fires, droughts and floods they experienced while there. He has traveled the world for both work and pleasure, exploring both indigenous and advanced cultures. In the course of his travels he became interested in the extraordinary capacity of some individuals and communities (often those with few material advantages) to turn adversity to their advantage and tragedy into opportunity.

What is Resilience? 

Morning light, Patrick's Point State Park, California

     In personal terms, resilience is usually defined as the ability of an individual to endure adversity or misfortune without losing the capacity to function normally and continue to experience the full range of human emotions. In communities and societies, resilience is the demonstrated capacity to withstand attack from without or within without a collapse of physical infrastructure and social and legal norms of civilized behavior. In nature, it’s the ability of nature to recover from extreme events like fire, flood, drought, storms or famine by resprouting from the roots and resuming evolutionary cycles anew.

     For the purposes of Hearts Broken Open, however, we choose to focus on a higher standard of resilience than returning to how things were before being struck by misfortune. “Adversity was the best thing that ever happened to me,” recalls one resilient spirit. We’re most interested in those cases where in response to misfortune, the individual, community or natural system not only survives but in the process becomes more vibrant and alive, breaking through rather than breaking down. This is not as rare as it sounds. Even while continuing to grieve from traumatic loss, some individuals struck by cancer, like communities devastated by hurricanes, external attack or mass shootings, report a deeper appreciation for life and a new sense of connectedness with one another as they realize their shared vulnerability. Resuming normal function is essential, but truly resilient spirits sometimes come to see their misfortune as a hidden gift without which they would never have discovered their inner resources or friends among the strangers who come to their aid in moments of need. What makes the difference in the greater ability of some individuals and communities alike to transform and transcend? Is this a capability the rest of us can consciously and successfully cultivate?

What is Well-Being? 

Boys on the beach, Pemuteran Bay, Bali, 2008

     Closely related to resilience is well-being. In striving to achieve the elusive ideal of happiness, we sometimes inadvertently undermine our well-being. This craving for perpetual good cheer creates a burden of self-expectation that makes it all the harder to appreciate the blessings that are already within our reach. Resilience depends in part on maintaining a balanced life in which setbacks and disappointments in one realm are compensated by success in others. Our ability to bounce back and rise higher in response to life’s inescapable losses is crucially affected by our ability to put setbacks in perspective. Hearts Broken Open explores the many connections between resilience and well-being and considers how we can deliberately cultivate both, and in the process generate the kind of happiness and contentment that flow from personal fulfillment.