Learning to Embrace Heartbreak


A commencement address given to the graduates of Parkland Health & Hospital System's summer CPE program.

As we gather this morning to celebrate the learning and ministry of our summer interns, it may seem counterintuitive to choose a topic that on the surface sounds rather bleak and depressing. This is not unintentional, for working in a place like Parkland plunges persons into the heart of paradox. It is a place of tremendous heartbreak while at the same time buzzing with joy and energy. Parkland is home to tragedies both systemic and personal. It poses insistent questions about how we as a community and as individuals participate in the dis/integration that lies at the heart of community health. As our interns have learned the hard way, the personal and social often meet in painful ways here. In listening to them consolidate their learning yesterday, it was hard to hear the litanies of lament surrounding the difficult encounters to which they had been present over the course of the last ten weeks. And yet, each of them described in their own way how they were going to miss this place. I believe that each of them is beginning to awaken to a voice that whispers its wisdom to us in the liminal places in our lives.

That wisdom is that we must learn to embrace heartbreak.

We must learn to embrace heartbreak.

We must learn to embrace heartbreak precisely because it visits each one us. It is one of the lowest common denominators between the person in the hospital bed and the clinician in the white coat, between the eternal stillness of death toward which our lives move with incredible speed and the anxiety we feel at having been called to bear witness to the fact of that stillness in a sea of other witnesses whose hearts—though broken—continue to carry forward life's rhythmic reverberation. To be sure, the heartbreak that exists within the walls of this healing community has put you in touch with thresholds beyond which even the most beautiful imaginations and the deepest of faiths come up short in trying to make sense of why tragedy happens.

One temptation, especially for persons in the middle of their theological education, is to mistake such moments as begging for rationalization through intellectualizing or theologizing. We might talk about the world being fallen, about how death is part of the curse (or part of the original blessing), about God's power or lack of power, about why good things happen to bad people, or how suffering is simply a fact of the nature of what it means to be human. None of these attempts to explain heartbreak, however, motivate a movement toward it. Rather, they give the impression that through the power of our intellect or reason we might find a way to control the uncontrollable by keeping the pain at arms length. The animalistic cries of, "Why!?" are more protest than inquiry, however, and invite devastation rather than explanation.

Another temptation is to meet heartbreak with just enough inattention that we erect walls too high for another's pain to get through to us. In these scenarios, our fear causes us to leave our empathic door only slightly ajar in the face of another's misfortune. We may listen and reflect back what we're hearing from another, but for whatever reason we have decided that we cannot bear the pain of solidarity in suffering. The cracked door approach still leaves us vulnerable to empathic overwhelm, but it removes the possibility of communicating compassion for the other, which has been shown to be the only antidote to "empathic fatigue."

I don't want to give the impression that heartbreak only exists out there, for while we have certainly seen things we probably wish we could unsee, each of us carries heartbreak within our very being at each and every moment.

A blessing we never received.

A criticism that has taken on a life of its own in our being.

A dream we had to release.

A future story that came to an abrupt end.

A hurtful word that escaped in the heat of the moment that did considerable damage.

Fearfully holding inside a pain or a hurt begging for expression.

These heartbreaks that we carry silently within are just as vulnerable as the heartbreaks to which we bear witness without. David Whyte beautifully describes heartbreak in his book Consolations:

…is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight.
Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life's work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete's quick but abstract ability to let go. Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.
Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream, a child lost before their time. Heartbreak, we hope, is something we hope we can avoid; something to guard against, a chasm to be carefully looked for and then walked around; the hope is to find a way to place our feet where the elemental forces of life will keep us in the manner to which we want to be accustomed and which will keep us from the losses that all other human beings have experienced without exception since the beginning of conscious time. But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.
Our hope to circumvent heartbreak in adulthood is beautifully and ironically child-like; heartbreak is as inescapable and inevitable as breathing, a part and a parcel of every path, asking for its due in every sincere course an individual takes, it may be that there may be not only no real life without the raw revelation of heartbreak, but 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 and can no longer sustain its steady beat, but 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 in the most settled, loving relationship, will always break our hearts at one time or another; a successful marriage has often had its heart broken many times just in order for the couple to stay together; 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 seriously taken will often take everything we have and still leave us wanting; and finally even the most self compassionate, self examination should, if we are sincere, lead eventually to existential disappointment.
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 even when we do not feel it by the intimate physical experience generated by its absence; it can also ground us truly in whatever grief we are experiencing, set us to planting a seed with what we have left or appreciate what we have built even as we stand in its ruins.
If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it might be asking us to look for it and make friends with it, to see it as our constant and instructive companion, and perhaps, in the depth of its impact as well as in its hindsight, and even, 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 and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

Friends, my sincere hope is that the experiences you have had this summer will remain with you as reminders to find a way to embrace heartbreak in all of its forms, both in the lives of others and especially in your own. As painful as it is at times, there is no surer or purer pathway to joy and wholeheartedness.