“There is no path we can walk that will not take us through some form of heartbreak,” David Whyte tells us. “And to accept that truth is to give a merciful gift to ourselves.”
My first encounter with poet David Whyte’s deep reflections began late last year. As a regular feature on websites I frequent for inspiration and leisurely reading, his work had been under my nose for many years. But such is the nature of work that examines the texture and potential of heartache for growth – your attention is turned elsewhere if you’ve never experienced that devastating blow.
After two difficult breakups, Whyte’s anthology When the Heart Breaks became my self-prescribed therapy, along with a 3-month sojourn. In 2016 I sought a journey of self-discovery in Europe, and so began traversing the landscapes of my inner psyche, along with the physical geographies of Spain, Germany and France.
But it was while hitch hiking in the Spanish region of Alicante that David Whyte’s rich Irish baritone first spoke into my ears, offering consolations as I walked alone back to a Spanish villa 12 miles away.
And it was during that walk that I realised I was being offered an opportunity for growth.
Where would we be without knowing disappointment? Would we develop the tenacity to persevere? If we bypassed heartbreak in the full contact sport of life, how would we develop compassion for others, and humility in the face of challenges?
It’s these sorts of questions that prompted a psychological and philosophical investigation into the meaning of love, partnership and relationships. More than a yearning to completely understanding the totality of my personal situation, I wanted to understand why we love, why we hold on to love that’s wrong for us, and the purpose behind heartbreak. Was it possible that a chrysalis moment eventuates after we cacoon ourselves off from love? Can we emerge as more fully-formed, emotionally intelligent individuals after enduring acute emotional pain? Or, would those moments leave scars too difficult to ignore and conceal?
The answer? There’s always a potential for growth and healing, but it takes a lot of therapy, self-awareness, and a willingness to forgive all who’ve unknowingly triggered our vulnerability.
If love is strong, resentment, fear and bitterness are unrelenting. And in the face of a psychologist with a notepad, you’re offered a chance to self-reveal, and to explore love’s counterparts in greater detail. It was during these sessions that a common trend became apparent:
There is, more often that not, no cause for resentment, fear and bitterness in adult life. But there are triggers. Identify these slippery triggers, and you’re more easily able to triumph the mountains of rejection and despair. More importantly, you’ll then be able to circumnavigate potential triggering situations, removing their power, intensity and duration.
I’ve experienced huge heart openings in these sessions, as less conventional practitioners invited me to fully embrace the sharp sting of unrequited love. Rather than counselling me to forget my beloved, I was asked to focus on the pain. Learning to sit with the discomfort would ease its effect, they’d tell me, and I’d allow myself to wallow in tears until I was too exhausted. The exercise gave closure, which did allow a degree of reprieve. Acceptance of self is a side effect of allowing sadness, as we relent rather than fight our normal human emotions. We give up the façade of nonchalance and joy, and learn to revel in our pain.
Aside from embracing discomfort to develop mental endurance, rather than continuing the charade of nonchalance, Alain de Botton also suggests that a façade is the main culprit behind unrequited love in the first place:
The cure for love does not lie in ceasing to think of the fugitive lover, but in learning to think more intensely and more constructively about who they may really be.
Botton posits that it’s this lack of knowledge of their flaws that is responsible for our grandiose assessment of those we place on pedestals. In an attempt to practice this philosophy, I focused on one partner’s negative attributes. While turning your attention to their personality ticks does dampen the heightened effect of unconditional love, the ratio of thinking about them and not thinking about them remained the same. Yet now, I was energised by a violent passion, and an insatiable urge to commit all manner of atrocities to their belongings. Cold blood crimes of passion are generally blamed on temporary insanity. And who can happily claim that love has not made them go crazy?
After months in therapy, it seemed I was no closer to my goal of understanding the meaning of heartache, or experiencing a potential for growth. Perhaps that walk by the mountains in Spain had been nothing but a picturesque moment stirring Byron-esque epiphanies, rather than the catalyst of a healing process.
Yet, to echo a very trite and often quoted mantra, healing is not a linear process. It’s a pop tart thin philosophy, but in exploring loss and focusing on ridding a person from the confines of our minds, we neglect to notice those the invisible ways the world offers us love in return. How often do we decline to express gratitude for the many moments in life where love is offered to us?
Sitting at the jaggered edges of our pain are moments where those we take for granted bestow us with the gift of unconditional acceptance.
It’s a sentiment which calls to mind the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful verse: “Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light.”
In the horror of my own suffering, I’ve often felt that a methodological, clinical process would be the answer to my salvation. And yet, it seems that the real gift of heartache is simple:
Appreciation. This type of love is the source that allows us to welcome new love, and find joy in what already flourishes. This sort of awareness allows us to turn toward our suffering within the spacious receptivity of love, and apply an emotional salve to our aching wounds. And when you have the courage to recognise that you’re not lacking, the grief can begin to subside, finally.