I don’t consider myself to be an expert on a broken heart. But if you are like me at all, then you’ve probably heard over and over that many people are feeling broken-hearted in these times. Then when I listened to a podcast interview this last week with one of my favorite authors Parker Palmer, I came to understand that we all have our hearts broken in little ways every single day. In fact, anyone who knows how to experience love is vulnerable. And every time something doesn’t go the way we expect, hope or plan, our hearts crack just a little (or a lot.) So, rather than pretend heartbreak doesn’t happen, or that it only happens to those with big tragedy and despair, I decided to share some observations and remedies that I learned from Palmer.
Parker Palmer believes there are two ways for our hearts to break. One type of heartbreak shatters the heart into a million pieces. He says, “Often these days, when it shatters it gets thrown, hurtled like a fragment grenade at the ostensible source of its pain.” He uses the word ostensible because he is convinced that most of us don’t really know where the pain is coming from, but we want someone to pay for it—so we blame and strike out at the most obvious source we can think of to alleviate our hurt.
Haven’t we all witnessed someone (even if we haven’t been that person ourselves) where those shattered fragments hurl out and hit everything and everyone around them? And while they may be aimed at anyone or anything that the grieving person feels is responsible, they usually end up damaging the heartbroken individual as well. Do you know someone who just can’t seem to stop posting vicious and angry thoughts and photos on Facebook? And what about the person who just can’t forgive their ex? No matter how self-righteous the anger might be, it sometimes closes down the heart into pure hatred. In those cases, the heart never really recovers because it is nearly impossible to reconnect the millions of broken shards that lay scattered around—especially if they see the only solution is for the heartbreaking situation to be different than it is.
The other way a heart can break is to break open to a larger capacity. It can stretch and expand, and like Palmer says, “It becomes better able to hold both one’s own joy and suffering, and the joy and suffering of the people around you.” Parker believes that in these troubling times we are each called to develop a heart with capacity, rather than one that just wants to flee or fight the situation from our “classic lizard brain.”
Again, I think we have all witnessed those who have suffered enormous personal tragedy and yet carry on doing what they can to heal themselves and even the world. On a small scale I think of my father who deeply grieved the passing of my mother and yet after a period of time went on to meet another woman friend. From that point forward, compassionate parts came through him that I had never seen before. Likewise, when I had a major illness that was both life-threatening and extremely painful, I afterward felt deeper compassion and understanding for others who experience both excruciating pain and face the possibility of their own demise. In some ways, I felt I was better after that experience because of how it opened me up.
So what can we do to heal a broken heart? First off Palmer suggests we recognize the choice we have between a brittle or a supple heart. Only a supple heart is flexible enough to bend, stretch and become more when needed. On the flip side, it is the brittle, guarded, and fearful heart that breaks apart—causing damage to itself and others.
But how do we do that? Palmer reminds us that every single day we each live through dozens of tiny, little sufferings (and yes even deaths). Those little disappointments add up—like the friend who betrays us in a tiny way, the unexpected illness that shows up in the body, or constant nit-picking at work. Much of the time we dismiss these small things and look away rather than feel the loss or pain they bring. Yet, by sitting with and staying aware of these tiny sufferings, we can actually exercise our hearts, and like a muscle, promote its flexibility. Then as any athlete who exercises her muscles before a competition, we would do well to ensure that our heart is limber enough to yield, expand and become more when necessary.
Of course, a big part of the problem is that many of us have learned how to stuff or ignore the pain of those losses so well that when something big comes along it has the potential to knock our feet out from under us. Is anyone out there as aware of the bubble that we tend to live in as much as I am now? In other words, we carve out a life that is fairly comfortable and routine and everything is great until a big “event” happens that makes us question both ourselves and the world around us. I know I’m not the only one who was deeply brokenhearted following the last election. And yes, much the pain and suffering has continued on almost daily between politics, the environment, and human rights violations. Palmer agrees that anyone NOT feeling the pain of such overt cruelty is either in deep denial or emotionally blocked.
So again, we have the option of witnessing the pain and suffering around us with either an open and supple heart, or a closed, guarded and brittle heart. Remember, one choice allows us to stay open to the joy and suffering of ourselves and others. The other closes us down or lashes out, becoming even more broken in the long run. One allows us to actively engage in the world and the lives of others in thousands of healing ways. The other keeps us cynical, fearful, and angry with our doors and our hearts locked as tightly as possible.
Parker Palmer is not the only one who suggests that an open, soft and supple heart is important in these times. As Pema Chodron says in her book Practicing Peace in Times of War, “If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to find the soft spot and stay with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility. That’s the true practice of peace.”
Embracing happiness and living in a positive way has never been about denying that painful and terrible things happen to good people all the time. Instead, it is the awareness that even when things are painful, we can grieve, learn from them and then move on—hopefully to become something better than before.
I think the most important thing about this perspective is realizing that we have a choice. Do we stay closed down in despair or disappointment or do we stay open in spite of it? And while the choice might not be easy, simple or happen immediately, it is possible. I choose to live knowing that all of our hearts are much stronger and more resilient than most of us know.
As Elisabeth Kubler Ross said, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I now know that each of us has at least two ways to experience a broken heart. The SMART choice is to stay open to a supple, flexible and expanded heart no matter what might happen in our lives today.
Okay, your turn. Have you also been hearing that others are feeling heartbroken these days? Are you feeling heartbroken? Do you have any advice about how we can all keep our hearts supple, open and better prepared for whatever challenges we face? Please share in the comments below.