The other day, I suffered a heartbreak.
Nothing major–put away the bonbons.
Just the kind that makes you walk with your shoulders rounded, your chest a little caved in.
There were phone calls, with words traded like chess pieces, spoken in a slow trudge down the block in the dark, watching traffic with non sequitur commentary running through my head. Our fast-twitch muscles need a distraction, it seems, maybe to keep us from gnawing ourselves to death like a wolf in a trap.
And then it was over, and I walked back to the party, and tried to be whatever I’d been before.
I’ve had a lot worse heartbreaks than this. For once, I’ll say, it was over someone worth the trouble. That’s some consolation.
Or it was.
I’ve spent the days since then lying in the sun, a lot, hoping to dry out this dank little knot that lodges somewhere between my lymph node and the inner part of my shoulder blade. It’s a thing that catches on breaths too deep, and aches like a bum knee at moments when I sit still for too long.
It seems like crying would help, so I’ve tried to induce it. A couple days after the event, I started to choke up, to feel my eyes burn. But then it just dried up, unaccountably.
Fortunately, I had work, which is never so easy to do when you’re trying not to think about something else. I’ve cracked out three 2-hour interview transcripts this week alone, and finished my first-draft magazine piece in record time.
Also, I’ve gone dancing with sexy guys, the way you’re supposed to. (Much obliged to them for making themselves available.)
Still that ache remains lodged between my chest and my shoulder blade. Still I wonder where the tears might be.
Some time back, when everyone started making (and, naturally, posting) gratitude lists of all life’s little daily blessings, I began a gratitude list of all the little goddammits.
Frustrations. Inconveniences. Hurts. Fuckups. Minor tragedies if every sort.
It started with a car wreck. It amplified to include personal and professional snubs, the loss of all my iPod notes in an ill-timed software update, and various anxiety attacks. I found a quotation by St. John of the Cross to support the endeavor. Over time, this exercise actually became fun…in a dark comedy kind of way.
Over time, as items accrued, I began seeing in them what I could never see at the time…that the situations I called disappointments were opportunities for something amazing to happen.
People loved that list.
And then I stopped keeping it.
Because the one disappointment I refuse to see good in happened to me. Again.
I tried my best to overcome it, to put on my big girl pants (as my father likes to say). But each time I believed I’d finally got my emotions corralled, something broke through the fence.
My emotions will take any opportunity to stampede, no question. But heartbreak is the one occasion where I have no sense of humor or perspective about it. (If I seem to, I’m lying.)
When a friend remarked that my story was a good one, I surprised us both by yelling, “I don’t want a good story! I want a boring story!”
If God had a secret play behind this heartbreak, I wasn’t interested. I was fine with minor plot point deviations, but I would not brook his messing with the main theme of my life. And until it got back on track…until I’d fixed or worked out these weird twists he kept throwing in…I wasn’t going to acknowledge his ingenuity anywhere else.
What that translated to was the abandonment of the gratitude list.
Typically, with pain like this, I don’t grieve so much as hurl it back from whence it came. It feels like contesting a traffic ticket–a long, protracted thumb-wrestle between mute power and dedicated protest. I make my prayers, if you can call them that, with impassioned thoroughness and elaborate legalese, listing with categorical precision why I didn’t deserve to experience this. Again. And again, the answer comes back mute–another form to fill, out as it were–each one saps my strength a little more, until finally I’m just dully, mulishly repeating “No. No.”
A few years ago, in a similar (but much more justifiable) heartbreak situation, a friend suggested that I needed to grieve.
“Grieve?” I spat back into the phone. “He’s not dead!“
Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve talked to her since then.
I was at a “women’s meeting” for the new church I’m attending. Typically I’m a bit oil-and-water when it comes to church female get-togethers. But this time I was eager to go, relieved at the prospect of something to get my mind off trying to get my mind off something.
Incidentally, it was a good time. And I don’t mean a Good time; I mean fun–as in movies, and chips, and taking silly pictures of each other.
And then they said they wanted to pray for me.
Which would have been really weird, except that on the drive over, I’d finally burst out crying. Notice I didn’t say “burst into tears”–there weren’t any. Just that weird huffing cry that could be mistaken for laughter, that almost feels like laughter as it shakes your stomach like a kid ransacking a piggy bank. It was a relief, but I didn’t understand it.
Once they started to pray, however, I started crying for real.
“How do you feel?” they asked, when it had all subsided.
“Embarrassed,” I muttered.
And try as they might to tell me it was nothing to be embarrassed of, that they’d all been there, that they cared and were glad to be there and did I want to stay over, I still couldn’t quite take it.
I mean that phrase–“take it.” I have a hard time receiving.
It occurs to me that grief and grace are both acts of receiving. We don’t earn them: bad things happen to good people all the time, and we know even more keenly how many good things happen to bad people.
Obviously, one is pleasanter. But the stiff-arm is equally strong, equally instinctive, to both. We get a compliment or we get a catastrophe, and in response to both we spend hours protesting to whoever visited it upon us that we don’t deserve it.
They’re also both, by nature, inescapable. As soon as you can repay grace…even can, not just do…it’s not grace anymore. As soon as you can maneuver around your grief, then it’s just a sucky result of poor decisions on your part.
Grief and grace are both sides of what Kierkegaard referred to in faith–it’s a pathos. A passion. A suffering.
Grief, wherever it comes from, is fundamentally an act of God–an act of not sparing us, like he typically does, from lasting, penetrating heartache.
There’s got to be something within grieving that is good, that is wholesome…not in a swallowing castor oil way, but in a genuine, “taste and see” way. Because God only gives us good things…or so they’ve been telling me.
And if you want to say some bullshit about it being “a broken world” in the comments, save yourself the effort. (Unless you want me to reply with the word “bullshit.”) I need a response that is intelligent, rational or explicative, or else nothing at all.
And I suspect there isn’t anything intelligent to be said about receiving, whether it’s grief or grace. There’s nothing to really understand about it. It just happens.
Gratitude may be intelligent; so may sorrow; but the moment you even up the balance, you’re not receiving anymore. You’re just trading.
If you’d asked me if I wanted to go through this grief, I’d probably have said no…and then thought about it and been like, well, is there anything to be gained from it? And if you’d been able to convince me that yes, there are these valuable life lessons and character experiences and here’s how long it will last, then I’d probably have said okay. I’ll try anything once.
After all, it’s not the pain of grief that I find so egregious. (I’m the fucking Lance Armstrong of emotional teeth-gritting.)
It’s the not-in-control-ness. It’s having nothing to do with the experience except passively suffer it. It’s not knowing why it happened or whether to expect it to return.
I feel the same way toward grace–trying so hard to make myself worthy of every time it’s given to me, not so much because I think I’ll lose it, if I don’t…I’m (mostly) past that instinct. It’s more because I think I won’t enjoy the gift, the grace, as much, if I don’t measure up to its greatness. Like dating a guy who’s out of your league–as excited as you are, you’re always slightly conscious of the inequity, and it makes you feel just a little bit bad about yourself.
I like to give. I love it. It is, in fact, one of my favorite things about being in love–the opportunity to find someone who is delighted by what I have to give them. (I’ve been known to adjust my resources to fit a certain character, for the sake of being received more eagerly.)
It is, in fact, what broke my heart in this particular instance–that I wouldn’t be able to give to this person anymore. That he’d picked someone else to receive from.
That’s interesting, right? Maybe it’s a Meyers-Briggs thing, or an upbringing thing…don’t you dare tell me it’s just a woman thing.
I opine that it’s a human thing, because it’s the nature of love to give. It feels good.
I’d even say that the biggest freeloaders–in love and elsewhere–are the way they are because they secretly fear running out if they give too much. They’re punishing themselves, essentially, by refusing to give until they’ve received what they think is enough.
But that’s not real receiving–it’s still trading.
Anyway, I digress.
The way we receive grief influences the way we receive grace, and vice versa. It’s recursive (I think that’s the word I want). I’ve realized that it’s become instinctive for me to close myself off to grace–I only want what I can manage, thank you–because I don’t trust the act of receiving, on account of the grief I experienced previous to it.
Having realized this, I then realize I have to open myself up to receiving grief with open arms, if I want to more fully experience the grace that comes after.
And so it goes on–each experience of grace stretches us out to receive grief differently, with opener arms than we used to. And the grief stretches us out more, lays us open. It can either pin us down, like a butterfly pinned to a board, or we can spread-eagle, as willingly as possible, and let it happen.
…If that language makes you uncomfortable, good. Receiving is uncomfortable, unless you trust fully.
And who does?
This isn’t The Christian Life™. It’s just life. You get to choose which way to respond to what you receive, and let it shape you for the next thing you’ll receive. Back and forth, between grace and grief, like two baseball teams stacking their hands on a bat.
The only differentiator for Christianity is being set up to receive the final grace in the end–where your perfected body and mind are completed to withstand the gift after gift that is poured out on you, and giving back is not looked at as a trade, but just leaps out of your mouth spontaneously.
Being on this end of life, of eternity, of God, I forget that humans were built in the beginning mainly as characters in a narrative of eons…in which the action revolves around receiving. Sometimes I think the whole reason we write books on how to pray (along with how to do everything else) is in interest of forgetting this seminal fact. It’s a humbling thing to remember–even when the memory comes through receiving something I wanted–that I am a secondary player in my own story.