photo ©Julienne Givot
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.
photo ©Julienne Givot
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
Emily Dickinson Image via Wikipedia
In his biography of Emily Dickinson, Alfred Habeggar describes a scene where Emily sits happily in the lap of a male acquaintance in the front room of her family home. During her later years, she found pleasure in this man’s attentions long after mysteriously absenting herself from Amhearst’s social life and an almost complete inaccessibility to all but the most intimate and trusted friends and family. We know her to be an eccentric and quite likely a virgin, yet this example contradicts all that we assume about virgins. How can someone who rejects physical intimacy and normal human sexuality be comfortable canoodling with a widowed judge? As well, there are many accounts of Queen Elizabeth I being overly demonstrative and affectionate with male courtiers and visiting dignitaries while also cultivating a reputation as the Virgin Queen. Notes written in the private papers of her Council members and others close to her affirm their belief in her sexual inexperience. The question bears repeating: How can a virgin be at once physically inaccessible and sexually expressive?
Typically, a virgin is seen as one who cannot bear to be touched, inexperience, naive, and traditionally female. These barriers to intimacy comprise an over-identification of the self with intangibles in an inviolable sense of purity, or the Damaged Virgin. We see similar expressions in ourselves when we recoil from an object that is unclean, like scrubbing a toilet on our hands and knees or laying flat on our backs to change the oil in a car. Our wider culture has limited the state of the Virgin to the purity and separateness of her body, specifically the state of her hymen. “Virgin” is often used in reference to an individual’s state of pre-initation before a particular experience (a vessel’s first trip is a “maiden voyage”). This usage refers to a lack of experience in an individual or object, implying a transitional consciousness, a Before and After expression when looking back tat the event.
Unfortunately for the damaged virgin, very few people on this planet have arrived without the benefit of at least one person having an orgasm. Sexuality and physical intimacy is an experience that all of us share in common, both in our own experiences and that of our forebears. For some, engaging in a mutual sexual experience is the basis for expectation and ownership. As the comedian Sommore says in The Queens of Comedy, “…you f*ck with me, you stuck with me.” [Censorship added] For much of human history, the act of marriage has transferred the exercise of a woman’s power of choice from her father to her husband,
Vestal Virgin engraving by Sir Edward Leighton
demonstrated most visibly in the change of her name. But in ancient Rome, when a girl was selected to enter the service of the Goddess Vesta, she escaped the common social practice of her culture and moved beyond the strict bondage of a male relative. She was expected to remain celibate, (to be more specific, uninitiated in the ways of physical intimacy with a man) in her 30 years or more in Vesta’s service. Serving the goddess effectively and exemplifying an unimpeachable character for Rome’s citizens required a great degree of training (education), consequentially enabling a personal mind, her own view of herself and the world. Whether she decided at the end of her term to remain within the Temple or to go out into the world and marry a man of her choice, in her late-thirties on, neither the Vestals’ mind nor body would be owned by husband, father, son or brother.
We can examine a virgin’s sexuality as a means of seeing this pattern symbolically: Sexuality is a way of expressing a person’s accessibility . Literally, a virgin’s crotch is closed for business. We can say ‘access’ is also ‘proximity’ in that we often do not allow ourselves to be near certain experiences, ideas, and individuals. When we hold ourselves apart from the truth, when we won’t allow certain people near us for whatever reason though simultaneously we long to be with them, we are expressing a damaged virginity.
The Virgin’s association with purity applies deeper than a physical condition and contacts an inherently internal intimacy. This archetype enters our lives when we feel a need to draw inward, pursuing exquisitely personal questions that are commonly suppressed in the social expressions of ourselves. In the doldrums of personal awareness we may not access others in the same ways we had before, lacking connection professionally, socially, sexually, and conversationally that were once so automatic and assured. The Virgin can be seen as a gatekeeper of the spiritual path, an advocate for personal introduction. But the expression of the Virgin as a spiritual mentor is temporary and wisely recognized as a pause for the sake of upgrading ourselves. Once our lives open up again, we return in possession not only of new understandings, but of ourselves too.
More than a sexual experience with a cast of one (or for some of us, hundreds), this archetype contacts an outrageous expression of one’s personal identity. “Outrageous” because this pattern has the potential to embody an inviolability that is independent of our experiences, lays beyond our physical location, is separate from our familial lineages. Virgins contain a knowledge of themselves that can be seen by others, but never tainted, claimed, co-opted, or violated. Going through the experience of isolation and self-focus earns the Virgin attributes that extend beyond any physical grasp.
One answer to the question how can a virgin be at once physically inaccessible and sexually expressive may be:
I am myself. My body, my attention, my affections are all mine to share and intimacy at any level comes from me, not as a reward or certificate of ownership, but as part of that which I have to offer those of my choosing.
Mythology/Religion: Artemis/Diana; The Madonna; Hestia/Vesta; Minerva/Athena; Vestal Virgins
Historical Figures: Queen Elizabeth I; Emily Dickinson; Joan of Arc
Movies: The Forty Year Old Virgin; Sean Connery in The Medicine Man; Kirstin Dunst et al. in The Virgin Suicides; Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Understanding archetypes goes much deeper than a chat about a movie and beyond the confines of a psychology textbook. An archetype is not just a pattern “out there” in theory but it is a recurring set of experiences that unfold through the course of a human life. Our ability to spot when a particular pattern walks in the door makes the difference between acting out and making a conscious choice. We begin to view the shape of our lives within an archetypal language by introducing ourselves to four patterns that we all share, the Survival Archetypes. Let’s imagine that four well-known television characters become clothed for a time with each her own version of a pattern. Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia share a home somewhere in Miami in the Emmy winning television sitcom, The Golden Girls.
‘Rose’ image via Wikipedia
This pattern and the next are the most obvious to match with characters from the show. Rose captures the essence of the Child perfectly. Her wide, gullible eyes lack any indication of doubt because she accepts anything an adult tells her. The pattern itself balances innocence and responsibility. Forced to make her way through life by her own efforts, Rose gathers herself up from a fantasy world where she is taken care of by her husband’s pension plan or a steady job and takes life on directly. This is significant because the Child has to leave the safety of the family and enter a harsh world populated by sharply critical adults. When we want to run away from a situation and deny what is happening, we are confronting the Child within us. Yet this is also the pattern where we can choose to see each situation as overflowing with limitless potential and see things as new again.
‘Blanche’ image via Wikipedia
Of course it’s Blanche. In almost every episode, she decides to assign a value to her body by comparing her looks to another woman or using her body to advance her own interests. At every turn Blanche is chasing a man or furious that her wiles haven’t produced the results she expected. The Prostitute grabs a price scanner and makes its mark on every part of us it can so that we feel safe in the world, often by remaining in a relationship or a job. Whenever she is confronted with a problem, Blanche throws on a negligee and adjusts her makeup in order to barter her way through. She never fully believes in her own capacity to solve her problems beyond her salable attributes. Only by the end of an episode does Blanche find what is truly valuable: Her friendships and sense of herself beyond her outward appearance.
‘Dorothy’ image via Wikipedia
Dorothy is the “smart” one with the cold stares and the newspaper in her hand, ever expounding on the failures of society with its potential to violate and betray us. It is her voice that speaks up after silently burning for a few moments, waiting for the assault to stop, and sets appropriate boundaries. More than a few times Dorothy picks up a newspaper and hits Rose over the head when the St. Olaf stories go on too long. This is the Victim, present when we feel unable to defend ourselves but also when we go after someone else for revenge. Its empowerment isn’t in aggression and dominance but in being clear about our boundaries as they relate to who gets “in” as well as how far you get “out.”
‘Sophia’ image via Wikipedia
Sophia’s entrance is often preceded by someone starting to dream about a wonderful new idea or vision of themselves. She shuts them down with a opinion based on how they will fail, often gouging out a chunk of self esteem in the process. The Saboteur does the same. Dorothy, for her part the empowered Victim, slaps her hand across Sophia’s mouth to prevent the impending criticism. When you are about to make a choice that will interrupt a new opportunity for you to build self-esteem and connect to your destiny, the Saboteur has entered the room. Through the entire series, Sophia exemplifies the Saboteur in her attempts to pursue a vibrant, active life for a woman in her eighties and confronts the view that she is hastening towards senility and the grave. The ability to step into a new life for ourselves is guarded by the Saboteur, but make no mistake: This is the pattern where WE are blocking our way forward, not anybody else.
Blanche: What do you think of my new dress? Is it me?
Sophia: It’s too tight, it’s too short and shows too much cleavage for a woman your age.
Dorothy: Yes, Blanche. It’s you.
Picture it: One night you can’t get to sleep. Something’s really bothering you at work or you’re ashamed of your bank account. Maybe you’re not with the person you love anymore. Whatever it is, you get up and shuffle into the kitchen. Soon, you are surrounded by four of your lifelong archetypal pals, only they’re doing all the talking. You sit there on the table while they pick at you, bicker and lay into each other with their concerns and fears. Basically, you’re a cheesecake, slowly eaten away bite after bite. Instead of becoming a pile of crumbs when these voices are in control, we can take the time to pursue a relationship with them. We can know when we are making a choice that obscures or magnifies our destiny. At first a silent partner, studying our deeper motivations, but in time we claim our place at the table. Eventually, we will distance ourselves from their automatic choices and see what has been waiting beyond our fears in front of us the whole time.
More articles about the Survival Archetypes
We find ourselves in the middle of the first month of the New Year. The air is still fresh, dreams are new, and heartbeats run fast. Maybe, like me, you are starting to slump under the abundance of material on keeping resolutions for the next twelve months. Instead of yet another piece on holding your intentions for the next month, let’s look at an archetype that can be your ally for the rest of your life.
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr
The Zombie, which is only increasing its popularity in films, comic books, and classic novel mash-ups, is an image that hardly needs an introduction. They are dead people returned from the grave, wandering around the land, and groaning after the living. Side-stepping the gory details, the classic Zombie is easy to recognize: Insatiable hunger, a monotonously numbing routine, and a lack of individual choice are three primary characteristics of this pattern. Any act, from voracious spending to pursuing increasing amounts of attention, qualifies as long as what you gain is never enough. This is not consuming for sustenance, but as a temporary fulfillment, stilling any discontent and numbing you to the full experience of life. Where is the ability to make a personal choice if one has glutton-ed themselves to the point of total numbness? That’s why you rarely see a lonely zombie. They’re part of a group, all of them chasing an endless appetite.
Zombies move in groups, lack a personal identity, and are attracted by that which is not like them, namely someone alive. They move together with a singular goal to consume and internalize some part of a person who, through their life, possess a personal share of destiny. Unfortunately, once a living person contacts a zombie they become part of the homogeneous group lacking independent animation and destiny. Instead of claiming their own destiny, zombies are attracted to someone else’s and consume what they can until everyone is in the half-life existence.
The Raising of Lazarus – Vincent Van Gogh
It is the empowered Zombie that wakes up and moves toward her passions and the life that has been calling her. Lazarus in the Gospel of John is a useful illustration to this point. He had been dead and in a cave for several days before Jesus finally rolled into town. After speaking with the deceased’s grieving family members, Jesus stood outside the cave and called to the dead. (This is the voice of destiny urging the zombie to stir from his half-life.) A few moments later Lazarus woke, walked out into the daylight and stood while his face, hands, and feet were unwrapped from the constraining funerary garments.
For you and I, we can detect the presence of the Zombie when we find ourselves deep in our caves, consuming all that spews out of our electric displays, wondering at those who seem to have a slice of their own destiny. We may dream at the possibilities of fame and glazed camera lights instead of making things happen for ourselves. There is a voice outside in the sunlight calling to us every moment to wake up and come out into the world. First, we have to shake off the bindings that block our walking and our talking. We have to struggle to move and at times even to hear the voice itself. But we can walk out into the brightness of the life that we were born to live and follow each our own destinies. What better time to resolve our own longings than right now?
Film & Television: 28 Days Later; The Night of the Living Dead; Shaun of the Dead; Office Space; Clockwatchers; Fido; Zombieland; the Borg in Star Trek
Fiction: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith; the Inferi in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling; 1984 by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Religion/Myth: Lazarus in The New Testament (John, Chapter 11)
My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead (New York Times)