Heartbreak is a term most often associated with the unfortunate end of a romantic relationship. It’s also a pervasive pattern that intersects every single human life everywhere. When we hear a friend say, “My heart is broken,” we can relate in an instant without their details. Heartbreak is an archetype that enters our lives on more than one occasion and under differing circumstances but it is not a pattern that organizes a life in the same way that, for example, the Mother does. We don’t meet someone think they were definitely born to for heartbreak. What drives the broken heart is the inability of our expectations to meet the demands of life.
A few years ago, I had my first great experience of heartbreak. The life I thought I would have and where I thought I would be by that time was unfounded and I admitted it. I couldn’t breathe as one image in sequence crashed into the next. I found it hard to stand. In the rubble of my fantasies I fell into despair.
We are forever building cities to our fantasies. We say to ourselves, “I’ll always be with this person,” “I’ll always work here,” “They’ll never die,” and so on. Then the day comes that person doesn’t love us anymore, or we get fired, or that someone dies. One illusion crumbles into another, falling against each other in a long, dusty sequence. Shocked, alternating in loss and denial, we begin a grieving process. We won’t see that the ruin that is our pain is also the opportunity. Whenever we begin something new we have to start with a clear surface to work.
I wandered through my life in the weeks that passed, through the same rooms and spaces I’d known but I wasn’t in them anymore. Whether I was angry at all the time wasted or in denial that the whole fantasy could be resurrected, I was in mourning for the life that had passed away. “Broken heart” became a mantra that I’d repeat to myself and then a visceral experience in my chest. When others saw that something was wrong and asked after it I couldn’t speak to what I was feeling. By myself, I’d weep a great deal. And then I began to ask, “What did break?” I knew I was alive so it could not be my literal heart. Something was broken but if not my heart, then a heart that was never real to begin with. And then there it was: A thrumming in my chest, a sensation that would become a guide back to the present. No longer was I drifting in the past and projecting towards a mythical future. Every motion a moment proceeding steady. With my attention there on my heart, I wasn’t dwelling on what was gone but I stayed here with was already still.
I call the heart that broke was my thimbled heart; cold, hollow, capable of measuring out loves only as much as what was put in, and hard enough to resist intrusion. It didn’t beat much. I had to lay down the remains of my expectations, and in so doing the thimble heart of who I thought I was in order to see what still stood undisturbed.
The magnitude of suffering that quantifies “heartbreak” constitutes a transformational journey, one of such weight and consequence that the issue(s) which began the process cannot be discarded as a measure of coming through the experience and being healed. In fact that would be irresponsible. We don’t leave these things behind, for living bodies carry the scars of the wounds that have been suffered. Only corpses never heal. And let me say that crying on occasion for the person we have been is not an indication that our wounds haven’t healed, but is a signal that our hearts are alive and engaged. If anything we gain the capacity to see the heartbreak in others and a greater compassion for the condition of loss and expectation that beats in all human beings. Born from the tears cried in the suffering of our undesired experiences, a greater heart moves unrelenting. Then it is that we break upon our hearts and breaking open, bear it blazing for all beings everywhere. When we sit with one who is breaking, maybe the best we can offer is a strong witness to the grief they are bearing and allow them their experience. Of all things the greatest helper is time. Perhaps when the broken heart calls once again to visit, we can remember and bring our attention back to what is left as a practical respite from our unbearable grief of letting go.
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich