In July, after much of the commotion over the US anti-racism protests had died down, at least in this part of the world, and we were back to fulltime worrying about the pandemic, I, was still having trouble sleeping. And heart palpitations. And inexplicable crying spells. I was grappling with a grief that was palpable and oppressive. I am not a stranger to grief but this particular brand had an intensity that had blindsided me.
It was much later, after I had been to the doctor and done all the things I normally do to keep sane that I realised I was in fact suffering from a broken heart. It wasn’t something I could positive-think my way out of. The only way out was through.
We tend to think of a broken heart mostly as it relates to love and romance, for example when someone jilts us or our love is unrequited. I’ve been on the receiving end of both and I have also been the instigator of one. Both jilting and unrequited love are tragedies in their own right. But here I want to broaden our thinking and perspective on what it means to be broken-hearted.
If you’ve ever had your heart broken, you know the pain is unique, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. More so because you can’t point to anything that other people can see as physical evidence of your suffering. It’s not like a broken leg where it’s visible and you literally can’t walk. Broken hearts tend to happen in silence and in private because everyone knows the drill, at some point your heart will be broken so toughen up, buddy. We take it lightly when friends or loved ones tell us their heart hurts. We believe a broken heart is not as serious as a physical illness so we say things like; it’s part of life. Everyone goes through it. Time will heal. While these may true, the danger is in the way they minimise the gravity of the situation.
What does it mean to be broken-hearted?
The etymology of the word broken is profoundly visceral. To break something is to rend violently; to wreck; crush, rupture, quench, maime; to shatter.
I want you to slow down and read that list again. Let the words sink in. Feel their utter violence. And then imagine your heart, your sweet tender heart going through something like that. Imagine someone else’s heart being treated that way. If, like me, you have a great imagination, you may even feel it; the sound of breaking and the ache in your chest. That is how powerful heart break is.
Your heart is more than an organ that pumps blood in your body, it’s also your conscience, spirit and soul – that indefinable sense of who you are. So to be broken-hearted is to have your inner man, your seat of emotions, passions and courage broken (insert any of the words we covered above). We’re not therefore talking about something trivial. Heartbreak is a physical and spiritual sickness.
People do die from broken hearts.
What causes broken-heartedness?
There’s a brokenness that comes as a result of living in this world, often attached to how we behave towards one another. When we fail to see and value each other’s humanity and instead cause injury by our words, cruelty, disregard and disdain. Oppression is the perfect example of this. When we oppress and dehumanise one another, we create a hostile eco-system that feeds off and indeed requires people to be hurt and broken. The point of oppression is to control others by putting a yoke on them and to do that you have to be willing to either break people’s spirits or be indifferent to their pain. Indifference makes it possible for all of us to participate in upholding a system and culture of violence and oppression without feeling like we’re responsible for creating it. It becomes normal to think of others as not being as worthy or as deserving of a quality life as we do. And perhaps more cunning is the privilege to not even have to think of it at all. To opt out.
What we forget is that to be indifferent to injustice is to take a side; it’s being part of the problem. In justice work, you’re either for justice or you’re not. Nobody gets to hang out in the middle, not for long anyway. I recently had a conversation with someone I respect. I was sharing how triggering the racial protests have been for me as a black woman. She told me she couldn’t understand the experience because she wasn’t black. She then told me to talk to people who could understand. That was her way of opting out.
You can’t invest in a violent project and not expect it to not come back on you
Sometimes our heart is broken because of past trauma – relationships gone wrong, family tragedies and the myriad coping mechanisms we are forced to employ as children in order to survive. While they serve us in the moment and see us into adulthood, these conditionings also chip away at us and create identities that are fragmented. However the heartbreak happens, there are two things that are always true:
- A broken heart leaves a wound;
- A broken heart needs healing;
I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months what it would mean to participate in the healing process of the broken-hearted. What sort of skills would we need? What kind of people do we need to become?
What does it mean to bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted? Here are three things:
No. 1, Context
Even when conditions are normal, it is impossible to have compassion for someone else without understanding the things that have impacted that person’s life, his or her unique set of circumstances that have led them to being in the situation they’re in. We don’t treat our friends like they exist in a vacuum (hopefully) so why do we assume other people do simply because we don’t know them? I don’t mean having perfect understanding, nobody has perfect understanding of anybody else. But we can all relate to what it feels like to be human (hopefully), the highs and lows, the pains and disappointments. Understanding begins on that common ground and grows.
The recent racial protests in the USA have been an interesting revelation. The context of black Americans’ long-standing systemic oppression including its impact is well documented and yet in times of upheaval or demand for human rights, this long-standing history is conveniently forgotten in favour of comfort and superficial peace. I watched and listened as many of the white people in my life questioned the protests and dismissed them on account of inciting violence and civil disobedience. Most of these reactions completely missed the point and were hurtful because they were not grounded in understanding the wounds that a racist system inflicts on people. It is way easier to condemn people when we don’t understand OR care about what they have been through to get them where they are. Nor is it possible to make sense of people’s actions when we don’t know what motivates them.
We know that when a wound isn’t healed, it festers again and again.
The wounds of oppression are deep and can never be resolved by demands that those who are oppressed fall into line. Acknowledging people’s hurts and showing compassion is the first step towards healing. We can all attest to moments in our lives when being seen and having our pain recognised made the difference and set us on the path to healing. Even before we try to fix another person’s situation we need to understand the bigger story about them.
No. 2, Tending
When we have listened and acknowledged the broken heart, compassion compels us to take action. This is not ego-like dramatics of wanting to be seen to be good or fulfilling a duty. There is a place for duty but less so here. The action we take in caring for the broken-hearted is much more confronting. It requires stepping into the person’s proximity, coming near to them. This takes vulnerability and mercy on our part.
I have many childhood memories of my mother tending my wounds; the ones I got falling out of tress or being bitten by wild insects. She would cradle me on her lap, clean my wound then bind it up with a white bandage so it would heal. I didn’t like this process as a child. As an adult looking back, I see what my mother was doing: she was loving me.
Binding up wounds is intimate work. It’s the tending to someone’s hurt that eases their pain and facilitates relief and healing. You can only do it well when it’s done out of love. The skills you need here are love, presence and open-heartedness.
No. 3, Grace
The binding of wounds is a process fuelled by love but maintained by grace. Put simply, grace is that attitude of ongoing benevolence and favour on humans who may not have earned any of our regard. You offer grace simply because they are human. This is hard to do but justice and love requires you to be a far better person than you were interested in becoming. One thing about real love is that it is not an exchange for services rendered. People don’t owe us anything for loving them. Nor do they have to do something to earn our love. This kind of love is the only kind that has the power to bring us near to the broken-hearted and compel us to pick up oil, tend and bind their wounds.
Justice requires you to be a far better person than you were interested in becoming
When we bind up the wounds of others, we participate in creating peace. Peace is not just the absence of conflict; it’s also wholeness. This is what healing achieves when it is complete, when what is broken is finally put back together. But this is a process. I dream of a world where the broken-hearted are taken seriously – where there will be a place where thy can go to have their wounds bound up and hearts healed. Until then I aim to be the person who takes their brokenness seriously and is equipped to be in service to them when I’m called upon. Join me.
ACTION: Pay attention to your reaction to people who tell you they have a broken heart. Journal about this.