In one of the latest film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations, Helena Bonham Carter was cast in the role of Miss Havisham. For those unacquainted with the character, she is an old, rich woman, still living in the decay of the day her fiancé left her at the altar.
Living in decay is no understatement. Havisham wears her tattered wedding gown every day. By the time our protagonist, Pip, meets her she is a ghost of her former self, surrounded by the rotting wedding breakfast and cake which have been picked over by vermin for decades.
Whenever somebody says “Time heals all wounds,” I can't help but think about poor Miss Havisham. Sure, she’s an extreme case of a person so wounded by the great heartbreak of their younger years that they cannot move on. But I’ve seen real people carry grief for their entire lives too. Like the case of Miss Havisham, long-held torment and disappointment can grow worse with time.
She adopts a young girl and grooms her into a great beauty purposefully poised to break young men’s hearts. Evil, right?
The Miss Havisham effect
It's Miss Havisham's pain which transforms her into a villain who's determined to achieve her misguided revenge. More to the point, it's her inability to let go of that pain, to move on, and be healed.
Miss Havisham is a literary case study of just how long a wound can fester. The idea that time heals all wounds is nonsense. And researchers say grief and heartbreak might only get more addictive as time goes by.
Long term grief is known to activate neurons in the brain’s reward center. That means we can get stuck in these addictive loops of pain — despite the passing years. Despite the decay all around us. Can you guess what scientists call this condition?
The Miss Havisham Effect.
Thankfully, all hope is not lost. There is something that can help us recover from our deepest heartaches. Something that often takes time and effort.
When we tell ourselves and others that time heals all wounds, it’s a cute story that almost sounds true. But the reality is that all wounds — both physical and emotional — often take more effort than that.
Most wounds cannot heal without a basic level of care. Most wounds need routine cleaning and some require certain types of environments to fully heal. Or to properly heal. Some wounds will heal, but still leave a mark. And some wounds leave no trace behind while others will leave you permanently changed.
How emotional wounds heal
Whatever your wound, time will pass. How you treat your wound as time passes is really up to you, because it isn’t time that heals emotional wounds.
The more I write, the more I find myself writing about perspective, and the more I realize how much a healthy perspective matters. We can tell ourselves that a wound will heal in time, but the truth is that without proper perspective our wounds can fester. They might crust and scab over, yet leave us with lifelong pain and irritation all because we didn’t make an effort to find perspective first.
I’ve written before about rejection and heartbreak, and I’ve said the best response is to outgrow the pain. Such a response is closely related to finding proper perspective.
How emotional wounds linger
Everyone is going to be wounded in this life. It’s easy to get fixated on what we think should have happened versus what did happen. It’s so easy to waste years feeling like the victim, or believing we must be helpless.
When we fixate on the wrong things — or on unhelpful things — we lose our perspective. Without perspective, we get way off track.
It’s a lot like picking at an open wound. We’re so busy wallowing in worries and focusing on negative things that we only make matters worse. We might even become addicted to the pain.
How we gain perspective
The ability to maintain perspective, or even to find it again after a great wound is much more about our inner maturity and willingness to learn than anything anyone else can teach us.
Time plays into it, because we’re more likely to learn about maintaining a healthy perspective after going through multiple setbacks and heartbreaks. With time, yes, we can endure and discover that we’re much stronger than we knew.
But ultimately, we’ve got to do the work. Ask ourselves tough questions and be prepared for unexpected answers.
And we’ve got to be able to look at every painful situation and ask what’s the lesson here? How can I move on? How can this make me stronger?
Sometimes the answers are simple and obvious. At other times they hurt like hell. The only sure thing about any of the pain we face in this life is that it will come.
What matters most is what we’ll do with it.