Heartbreak is a real thing. The shock of losing love causes the body to release adrenaline and other stress chemicals that can actually cause the heart to spasm. The left ventricle becomes enlarged and arteries close. It can look and feel like a heart attack. Since 2005, the nation’s leading heart clinics have taken it seriously and dubbed it “broken heart syndrome.” People have died of a broken heart.
Today is the first day of Lent. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and the joke is that all of those people who have given up chocolate for Lent will be immediately regretting their decisions. But there is something highly appropriate about these two days falling so close together. Heartbreak is the reverse image, the necessary contrast, to the state of being in love. Lent is the time when, even though we live in a world that is alive with God’s grace, we feel broken and abandoned, even if the abandonment is all of our own choosing. We are the ones who have dumped God, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel a great deal of regret. Heartbreak belongs to both people at the end of a relationship. Lent belongs to both us and God.
There is a Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. It is full of stranded objects, nick knacks and mementos that couples bought together, when they were in their best time, and that now belong to no one, since there isn’t any best time, or any couple, anymore. A five inch tall wind-up bunny. A glass horse. Some of the objects were themselves the cause of the break-up, or emblematic of the reasons why the relationship ended. A side mirror that a jilted lover broke from her lover’s car when she discovered it parked outside of his mistress’s house. Some were gifts, that are now laden with memory, stranded in the museum because they cost their owner’s too much to keep. A box made out of glued together matches that a sailor once made for his sweetheart. A necklace.
People have donated all of these objects to the museum, and included little stories that hang on placards beside them. A blue and white plastic model of a molecule has a placard that reads: “An animal constructed out of different objects (chemical puzzle) with eyes glued on and a piece of paper saying who gave me this present.” A cell phone has a placard that reads: “He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more.” Shannon Service, who wrote about a visit to the museum for Brink Magazine, writes that “In their own way, the pieces mirror my own rage, my own awkwardness, and my own despair. They remind me of my flailings in the face of love. But instead of feeling shame, I find myself relieved…I let go of the notion that there is, somewhere, a proper, measured response to losing love. A broken heart makes us human, and sometimes being human is a ridiculous, painful, desperate thing.”
We have all come here today because we feel a need to share our own brokenness, our own humanity. Lent isn’t about the ending of romantic love, but about an even larger condition of broken heartedness. The Psalmist writes, “As for me, I am a worm and no man.” Surely he’s expressing a feeling that is familiar to all of us. Haven’t we all awoken, at some point, at some dark moment, and said something like that to ourselves? We feel low, lower than any other creature on earth. Because of something we’ve done. Because of something that’s been done to us. But we don’t just concentrate on the event, the thing that happened that brought us down. We extend our understanding, and begin to see brokenness, sorrow, as one of the primary states of the world. As if it were an element. We have failed the universe, or the universe has failed us.
There are many times in our lives, a great many, when we don’t think in this way. When we feel secure, and happy, and whole. When we know that we are beloved children of God, created in God’s image, and we feel that the love of God suffices. But Lent isn’t about those times. Lent is about acknowledging the full scope of our humanity, the sorrow that interlaces the joy.
The temptation is to never acknowledge that sorrow, to pretend that there’s only joy. C. Nathan DeWall, who teaches at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, performed a simple experiment. Knowing that heartbreak is real, is physical, he set out to test the results of simply numbing the pain. He gave tylenol to test subjects and had them play a computer game in which they experienced rejection. He said: “We made a straightforward prediction that if we numb people to the physical pain, it will numb the emotional pain as well.” MRI scans showed that he was right. But his results shouldn’t be surprising. Anyone who’s ever eaten a carton of ice cream after a break-up, or gotten drunk, knows that it’s possible to physically numb heartbreak. We also know that you can only eat so much ice cream, drink so much alcohol, take so many pills, before the problem switches from heartbreak to something else.
To acknowledge our heartbreak, whether it’s heartbreak that comes from a failed relationship or simply from being alive, takes courage. It takes an act of faith, of trust. Faith that our acknowledgment will be met with kindness and understanding. Trust that we truly are loved, by God, by our friends, even by strangers who have experienced their own heartbreak, and know how we feel, and sympathize, because heartbreak has created empathy within them. Surely God, who gave Himself for us, has experienced empathy, and knows our heartbreak. The prophet Joel said “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” That grace, that mercy, that patience and steadfast love, are the gifts of heartbreak, the things we learn from our sorrow.
Paul said, “we are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” That is the condition of heartbreak, to have an inner sate that is different from the outer state, to see the world rolling on, and feel that we have no part in it. But if we could see behind the mask, we would know that heartbreak is true to everyone, just as true as joy is. That there is an eternal and secret Museum of Broken Hearts, and that we all have pieces in it, and little placards, detailing our wounds. To enter this season of Lent is to walk through the doors of the museum, carrying our own mementos, and looking for a shelf to put them on, a place to hang them on the wall. And while we’re there, this season of Lent gives us a chance to look around, to see all of the other stray, abandoned objects, all of the weird details of each other’s heartache, and to know that we’re not alone, that the world often feels the way that we do, and that this feeling, full within ourselves, can build the beauty of empathy within us, can help us see, with clarity, the ashes that we each secretly bear, and can create new love in our hearts. Our hearts will be repaired by new love. Not singular love, not the love of a new lover, but love of everything, love of our shared humanity. The same love that God is always offering to us, the love that brings us to share in each other’s joy and heartbreak, the love that makes us rise from the ashes, fully alive.