The Gift of Heartbreak

(Okay, maybe that’s saying a little much. How about “The Gift in Heartbreak”?

In the month of daffodils and Valentines, I started wondering about the history of Valentine’s day, starting with the question, “who was St. Valentine, anyway,?” The answer seems to be lost in the murky history of the Middle Ages.

downloadIn one story, St. Valentine was beheaded for marrying young couples in Rome against Emperor Claudius’ decree that Roman soldiers remain single, so that they would remain more singe-focused as soldiers. In another story, he was killed for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons.

There are other stories also, but I was struck by how they all seem to involve as much or more heroism and heartbreak in the service of love than any of the emotionally delicious-but-safe sentimentality associated with the day named in the saint’s honor.

Which in turn made me think that maybe February would be the perfect month to write about the importance of heartbreak to how we grow in love (a downer of a beginning, I know…but read on! )

Several months ago, I read a wonderful magazine article by Glennon Doyle Melton, entitled “Important Lessons You Can Learn From Heartbreak.” In it, she begins by describing how her own, decades-long addictive involvement with food and then alcohol was a way, she realized in retrospect, to insulate herself from the unavoidable vulnerability of love. “If you couldn’t reach me, you couldn’t hurt me.” she writes, and  “I hid within my addictions for years.”

Ultimately, Melton goes on, she made her way to her first recovery meeting, which is where she began to learn to allow herself to be touched by pain and loss (especially the pain of things we can’t “fix”), and to even embrace these as her healers and teachers.

In our lives today, maybe it’s the homeless person we look away from, or suffering animals we can’t rescue, or refugees we see on the TV news. Maybe its a dying friend who is frightened and in pain whom we can’t bear to visit, our excuse being that it is too heartbreakingly painful to see him or her “that way.” Behaving (as Melton puts it:) “as if our hearts were meant to be returned to our maker in pristine condition!”

Quite the opposite. Explains Melton: “The heart is like any other muscle: it has to be worked, even ripped apart in order to grow stronger. We must get familiar with heartbreak, become curious about it, because there we will find essential clues for solving the mystery of who we are intended to be.”

As an example of the power of this kind of embrace, she then describes a group of women who’d each lost a baby in infancy or at birth.  “In 2003,” she writes, “they formed a sisterhood and then an advocacy group: ‘Healthy Birth Day.’ Together, through education and other kinds of support, they’ve contributed to lowering the stillbirth rate in their state so significantly that doctors are scratching their heads. My theory? Instead of withdrawing after their losses or finding ways to disconnect from the magnitude of their suffering, they ran straight toward it. Their pain became their fuel. Their courage saved others from the misery they’d experienced.”

Just like St. Valentine did.

So this Valentine’s Day, we might each ask ourselves what in the world breaks our hearts? Children who are being hurt or neglected? People going hungry? Violence against women? A personal loss we are not allowing ourselves to grieve?

Then maybe ask, “What are the ‘go to’ behaviors (judgement, avoidance, distraction) or substances (food, alcohol, or something else) I use to avoid my heartbreak, that so-necessary (because it’s the only thing that can create compassion in us) but so uncomfortable part of love?”

And what would it mean to move toward it instead, with courage and trust that it will take us deeper into love?

“Pain knocks on everyone’s door,” Melton writes, and “If we are wise, we will greet it and say, Come in, sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.

Water on walkway, Riverfront Park. Salem, OR 2017