Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.
~~Gabriel García Márquez
The heart was made to be broken.
As ministers, leaders and human beings, what are our experiences of heartbreak? How do we deal with that experience? Do we flee; do we fight, do we withdrawal, do we deny it or can we accept it as a soulful part of the human journey? In this article are musings on the phenomenon of heartbreak as part of the human journey.
Heartbreak is something we feel happens only when things have gone wrong: a shattered dream, a child lost before time, a loved one rejects us, a broken marriage, feelings of betrayal from a close friend, health issues unexpectedly arise, the termination from a church, ministry or job prematurely, a loved one dies. Then there is the intensity of collective grief when a community’s heart breaks or soul is shattered from a leader’s misconduct or a natural disaster that leaves behind ruins.
Often we believe heartbreak is to be avoided; something to guard against, a chasm to watch for and then walk carefully around. The hope is to live without it and to taste as little of it as possible, but all evidence is to the contrary of these child-like hopes.
Heartbreak is as inescapable and inevitable as breathing. It is a part and parcel of every path, asking for its dues in every sincere course an individual takes. It may be that there is no real life without the raw revelation of heartbreak. There is no single path we can take within a life that will allow us to escape without having that imaginative organ we call the heart broken by what it holds and then has to let go.
In a sobering physical sense, every heart does eventually break, as the precipitating reason for death or because the rest of the body has given up before it. Because we in a network of intricately woven relationships with people, the earth, our vocation and careers, the animal world, the created order and the creator of it, we will experience heartbreak from the other, and we will cause heartbreak for the other. Heartbreak is part of what it means to be human.
Hearts also break in an imaginative and psychological sense: there is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak. A marriage, a committed vow to another — even the most settled, loving relationship will break our hearts at one time or another. Parenthood, no matter the sincerity of our love for a child, will always break the mold of our motherly or fatherly hopes. A good work, if taken seriously, will often take everything we have and still leave us wanting. Finally even the most self-compassionate, self-examination should, if we are sincere, lead eventually to existential disappointment.
As a parent, I remember from my sons, where there is the greatest potential for pain comes the source for the most profound joy. Not to have either is to miss out on the other. I would not trade my sons nor those experiences of great joy and deep pain for all the money in the world. The heartbreak and joy grow from the same source. The poet Mary Oliver captures this in her poem We Shake With Joy. She writes:
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.
Then there are our institutions through which we serve. We experience heartbreak and disappointment from them. As young ministers, we discover it is not all we anticipate or imagine. As older ministers, we might feel unappreciated, our experience undervalued and at times, as ministers, we might even feel betrayed. Disillusionment can become our despairing way. The positive side of this experience of heartbreak and disillusionment toward the institution is that disillusionment removes illusions. From there, a more mature engagement can be held, nurtured and realized.
Doesn’t being a Christian spare us from such deep heartbreak and disappointing pain? I do not think so. Some forms of unhealthy Christianity try to deny or repress certain feelings and emotions like anger, pain, heartbreak and disappointment. Some try to say sadness and grief do not have a place in our joyful souls, but I do not believe this is true. A theology that is not large enough to contain the full range of human emotions and the experiences that help create them is not a broad enough theology or psychology. The Christian journey does not spare us from being human or exclude us because of the experience, but I believe invites us more deeply and honestly into it — both the fullness of joy and depths of pain.
Loss, grief, disappointment and heartbreak are part of the experience of being alive. Our soulful humanness is incubated and ripened in the dreams and sufferings of our lives. ”If you live long enough, serious things will happen,” William Stafford remarks. But as we make that hero and heroines’ journey embracing our experience and making space for its vastness and depth, no matter how raw, we are not alone and know that others have been through it before us and are with us. Jesus ‘ life displays this full range of human experience and invites us to do the same. In Albert Camus words, we are invited “to live to the point of tears.”
In Sir Edmond Dyer’s lines:
True hearts have eyes and ears no tongues to speak:
They hear, and see, and sigh, and then they break.
Dyer reminds us of the inevitability of heartbreak. It is part of what it means to be human. The Elizabethan poets and writers were familiar with this reality of heartbreak as part of life. Shakespeare’s tragedies depict this reality.
Jesus’ journey is packed with heartbreak and disappointment. Who are we to be different? In the cup of communion, we have the symbol of this phenomenon, deep pain and ecstatic joy held together in one common cup from which we drink. The container is strong enough, broad enough, wide enough and deep enough to hold.
In the poem, Dark Harbor, the poet Mark Strand writes:
How do you turn pain
into its own memorial, how do you write it down.
Turning it into itself as witnessed
through pleasure, so it can be known, even loved,
as it lives in what it could be.
Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose. It is the hidden DNA of our relationship with life, outlining outer forms by the intimate physical experience generated by its absence.
Heartbreak can ground us in whatever grief we are experiencing, set us to planting a seed with what we have left or appreciate what we have even as we stand in its ruins. If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it asks us to look for it, to see it as our constant and instructive companion, and perhaps, in the depth of its impact as well as in its hindsight, see it as its own reward.
Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable question. Heartbreak is something and someone, an experience that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.
Pain why? Why loss?
Why is heartbreak necessary?
Why is life such that no pain, no gain?
Why? Why? Why?
I don’t know.
But in my soul, I tell myself that
creates the cracks through which new light enters,
for new love to sprout,
for new relationships to form.
we are invited to a deeper, more grounded place.
a new identity,
a new way of being,
a robust vulnerability
A new story emerges.
But really, why?
“I don’t know.”
Such not knowing breaks my heart, people who “know” break it even more,
but broken or not, the mystery continues,
and life goes on beautifully, mysteriously, ominously.
In time, our broken hearts become
cups of communion for others
deep enough, broad enough, wide enough, strong enough, profound enough
to hold the paradoxical mystery in one
from which others
who experience the same
In the words of Sir Edward Dyer,
“True hearts have eyes and ears no tongues to speak:
They hear, and see, and sigh, and then they break.”
Trust the path,
make your journey,
be open to the experience
apprentice your own undoing,
listen to the questions
all as stones on the path.
embrace the encounters,
“to the point of tears.”
In all its wonder, paradox and mystery
just beyond the words,
thank God that we are alive.
Drink to the bottom
its profound joys and bitter heartbreaks,
for out of a broken heart grows a budding flower.
We are equal to the losses we encounter. . .
Agree or disagree. You are invited into the conversation!