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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How can you mend a broken heart?

What made it especially hard was that my parents really, really loved her.

She was their type: working class, down-to-earth, out-going, happy and uncomplicated. In fact, I felt at the time that my stocks as a good son rose because I was with her, and that they would in fact rather have had her as a daughter than me as a son.

At the time, I was wayward, had no clear path or purpose. And I must have seemed to my folks a kind of broody would-be intellectual, without any real outlet, of course. Pretentious too: I used to carry around a paperback edition of whatever poet or philosopher or playwright I was reading at the time, stuck ostentatiously into the side pocket of jacket in winter, or the hip pocket of my jeans in summer.

After years of being inseparable, still wayward, I felt my way was diverging from hers. I was young, and it was my life, dammit, and I wasn't going to be held back from what I was sure were far horizons. So I left one fine day.

It was the first serious relationship for both of us, and spanned most of our university years. In leaving this lovely young woman, who had done nothing injurious to me, not ever, I created a wound in the very core of her being that I know for a fact has never really healed. And that was 30 years ago.

There can be no sundering unless there was first a union.

Fate is not without a sense of ironic justice. In fact, I often think it is intent on mocking our attempts at directing our lives. For as badly as I did to her, the same was done to me 10 years later. But with a twist: I was left with a small, innocent, girl-child to raise. And so those far horizons I was chasing narrowed to the necessary confines of her needs.

"I'll see your broken heart, raise you a heart to love and shape," says Fate. Any gambler will tell you: the house always wins.

I remember being out in the garden one night as a late summer evening closed in, my little girl sleeping peacefully in her room above, and I suddenly got it. "Okay, " I said. "O-kay." It was more than poetic justice. Life had offered me an opportunity to heal through loving a tender, fragile little girl, and thus to undo the sort of heartlessness in me that so wounded someone else's tender little girl a decade before.

Her heart would stay broken, of course. As with a vase, even if you put it back together so it holds water and flowers, it's still broken, and always will be broken on some level.

My heart has stayed broken too, even though the little girl is now about to be 25 and is far more well-adjusted than I have any right to expect. Raising her taught me, long after I should already have known, what love actually was.

That's still going to leave a mark....

There is a way to mend a broken heart yourself, even if you don't have a child to show you how. I've thought a lot about this over the years, and I can see no practical alternative to forgiveness. What else do you do, seethe and cry forever? Is it really better to keep the anger and hatred locked away and take them out and polish them in the wee hours, savouring the bitterness? Do you really want that flinching reflex every time anything--a street, a song, a particular tree-- reminds you of the one who hurt you? Do you really never want to trust anyone ever again?

Folk wisdom has it that these held resentments become tumours. I don't know. But it is magical thinking to hope that all the scented baths, incense, chanting, yoga classes and elaborate distraction in the world is going chase it completely out of your being, as in an exorcism. And in the end, the only person who can suffer from holding onto the hurt is you.

One of the most fragile bones in the body, but less fragile than the organ below and to the left.

People talk about 'healing', but my experience is that one never actually erases the big jolts. Hearts can be mended, stitched, re-assembled, patched and painted. They can knit back together like bone tissue, but an x-ray will always shown the old breaks, clear as day. Broken bones can be left to nature, with only a slight intervention to set them properly. But you wouldn't want to leave the mending of broken hearts to human nature, though, with its 2-million-year-old fight-or-flight reflex, as well as the clever, neocortical facility for denial. Broken hearts require the hard, daily manual labour of forgiveness. This is not given to us, but has to be acquired and can only be learned through practice.

What can you do to begin to piece your heart back together, into some sort of working order? What are the mechanics of forgiveness?

1. Work to comprehend the motives of the person who hurt you. This involves acknowledging that few people are actually intentionally malicious, who actually undertake to injure others, but instead behave (as we all do) from complex motives and compulsions. Jung had it that in seeking to adjust to the world, we develop a 'persona'--the shiny shop-window we put forth to be socially accepted. But forming this necessary social mask, we also 'enshadow'  those compulsions and needs which are less socially acceptable. This 'shadow' side can be so obscured as to be invisible, even to the owner. And even those who are aware of their own shadow are not necessarily able to govern the sway of its heavy inertia.

2. See your own role in your heart-break. Two are required for this dark tango, one of whom is you. Were you naive? Too unguarded? Careless? In what ways did you set yourself up for this? Were there warning signs you ignored? This is not, I stress, to commit the age-old churlishness of blaming the victim, but merely to discern why we have become a victim. Unless you were a child at the time of the injury, you must bear the responsibility of protecting yourself, yet still remaining open to others. Forgiving yourself for your part in it, you may be more able to move toward genuine forgiveness toward the other.

3. Pray for the heart-breaker. Whether or not you believe there is a God who hears, needs to be told, and can be persuaded by human intercession, you can still undertake a deliberate practice of wishing the heartbreaker well. This may be the hardest part, the bending of your own emotional reflexes toward understanding and compassion, based on the above two steps. It's much more than cheek-turning passivity, it's more like seeing that the blow came from, must have come from, a place in the other that knows no other way to express itself, under the circumstances. What may help in this effort, is a serious personal moral inventory of all the times you yourself have injured the heart of another. If you would have others understand your motives (and who wouldn't), it follows that you must do likewise .

4. If it's appropriate (and only if), undertake to do acts of kindness toward the heart-breaker. Again, this is not to change them, but to change you. Their responses are irrelevant. There is a kind of wonderful bio-feedback in us that ensures that we can become what we do, that outward actions create appropriate inner states of feeling.

5. Let go of the desire to see the heart-breaker acknowledge guilt, responsibility, or even awareness of the hurt they caused. With the best will and all the compassion in the world, you will probably never be able to engineer this. How often we fantasize about a scene in which the one who hurt you wakes up to themselves, gasps in a remorse of conscience, and abjectly begs your forgiveness. Understand: this will probably never happen, satisfying though it might be to imagine.

6. Be patient and steadfast. Forgiveness is not easy, and so the only effective process of mending the heart is not for sissies. It may require years and never feel complete. It's taken me decades and still doesn't. Nevertheless...

I probably don't need to cite all the biblical references on the subject of forgiveness; they are many and legion. I only point out that the pesky Galilean also didn't say it was easy, just completely necessary if we're to evolve our natures and live in a world worth living in, not awash with vengeful, wounded souls. When asked how much we should forgive, he said, extrapolating Jewish law, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven."

By which, I think he meant: a whole lot.

In my most hopeful moments, I imagine a world where all of the people who loved us and that we have loved in our lives are able to come together in warmth and fellowship, shriven, forgiven, and forgiving, and remain a part of each other lives--lives we were at one time so deeply inter-pentrated with, and whose absence feels like a missing limb.

This is a dream of heaven, I know. And pity it is that the two women I spoke of at the beginning of this entry will almost certainly never read it, such is the alienating bitterness that comes from heartbreak and heartbreaking.

But if they did, I'd say this: "I forgive you. Please forgive me."

And to take us out....the bonus track. The Leisure Society's poignant "Our Hearts Burn Like Damp Matches".  Lyrics below the clip.

Take a walk through scattered trees

To the place where no one dreams
Serve my sentence and be done
All human life here is scarred
Posture slipped and ill-attired
We should all be redesigned
Hollow words sit silent in my mouth
Reasoned voices idle on the ground

Our hearts burn like damp matches
Turn then attack us, burst and then break
Embers plucked from the ashes
Glow to attract us, lure us away

Every day arrives too late
Every morning seems the same
Stale regrets and dull routine
Know at last your weathered soul
Know your tethers clung with soil
And the reasons for it all

Trust in me and I will trust in you
Hold me close and I will hold you too


  1. Thank you. Searingly honest and very illuminating.

  2. Very relevant to me personally... I did get to do the reconciliation thing...

  3. Thank you for this article. Today started out like it was going to be a hopeless day. Reading this made me feel more sad, but oddly, lighter too. I hope for forgiveness one day, for him and for myself.

  4. This was helpful. Thank you a lot. This has shed life in my heart.

  5. Thank you all. I strike acord with everything that was said. Thanks again.
    And to all if my fellow ppl who are in pain.
    Remember, God is love, and does NOT love anyone or anything more than you.

  6. I can relate to your article in so many ways right at this moment. I came home from work after a long sad and hard day. You see I have to look at my heart breaker outside my office window as he brings his new girlfriend to work with him. It is only once a week I get to see this, but it feels like it is forever. I had to research my feelings because the pain is unbearable, and really I don't understand why. It has been almost a year since we broke up and decided to be friends as per him. I accepted just so I could be near him in some sick way. I thank you so much for this article, as it has opened my eyes to what it is that I am feeling right now. I forgot how to forgive, instead I chose hate and anger, to the point of feeling sorry for me as an excuse to justify my psychotic behavior and thoughts. I will accept my responsibility in the break up of our relationship and stop hating him for moving on. It is time I forgive him for not appreciating my love and care. I did the acts of kindness, You are right, it should have been to change me not him. Again Thank YOU. REALITY CHECK.

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