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“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
I was staring into her beautiful face as she was explaining to me why we had to end our relationship—over a Facebook video call.
That face, the one I saw for the first time only months earlier, wasn’t just any face.
The first time I saw it was on Instagram when she DMed me after reading one of my articles. Like I always do, I checked her page and instantly began daydreaming over her array of natural photos. I mean, there wasn’t a single duck-face selfie to be found. Just an elaborate mix of action shots from a European woman engaged in European activities. Smelling flowers, playing hopscotch, drinking wine, visiting museums—to say I was smitten wouldn’t even scratch the surface.
Her long, naturally curly blonde hair was only accentuated by eyes I had once seen in paintings by Da Vinci or Raphael. She was 10 years younger than me, but in a bikini, you would never have guessed that. She looked like the sort of woman I used to fall in love with 20 years ago.
These days, though, this was not at all the type of woman I would bother to pursue. For the last decade, my partners have been every shape and size and color you can imagine. Presently though, my “type” has a lot more to do with the kind of conversation we can have. And she did not disappoint there either. She was an activist who was in the middle of finishing a PhD—and, wouldn’t you know it, she won a scholarship to come and study in the states for a semester.
Because of that coincidental good fortune, I woke up in a roadside motel looking right into those Da Vinci eyes almost two months after the Instagram message. And those eyes were the same ones that teared up as she walked me to my car, said goodbye, and told me she loved me. It took seven hours to drive home after that weekend and I was so tired, I was weaving like a person driving under the influence by the time I got to my exit on the thruway. Still in all, as far as I was concerned, it was the greatest weekend of my life.
Four days later, I received that heart-wrenching video call. She’d had a long, frustrating day of trying to get along as a foreigner in a midwestern state on a day when winter was threatening to send autumn packing. She couldn’t find a taxi home from the market and spent hours waiting for a ride. It was in those hours that she decided she needed a man who did not live hundreds and, very soon, thousands of miles away. She wanted someone who could’ve dropped everything and picked her up from the supermarket. She explained that she had an annoying habit of finding “soulmates” from remote regions of the globe and she was tired of it. It was time for her to find a soulmate less than a mile away.
This was the sort of situation that hurt so deeply, it actually took a week or so for me to feel the extent of the pain. I had been talking about going to therapy regularly for years, but this drove me to follow through and not stop making phone calls until I found someone. I don’t remember how long it took, but I finally did.
For four one-hour appointments over four weeks straight, I poured my heart out, cried, and moped. Finally, one night it was getting late and I was into my fifth hour of overtime. Somewhere in the delirium, I could hear Lou Rawls singing in my head, “You’ll never find…a love like mine…”
I started laughing. Then I began to crack up hysterically. I parked my truck, punched out, and drove home with “You’ll Never Find a Love Like Mine” on repeat for the entire half-hour commute. And that was it. It was time to dust myself off and keep going.
This was a few months ago, and I haven’t yet been tempted to ask anyone out or construct a profile on a dating site. Perhaps therapy has filled a void inside of me that I used to try to stuff with the souls and bodies of past lovers. Perhaps, like Elizabeth Gilbert, I am on a quest of self-discovery. Of course, she had Italy, India, and Bali, but that is just interesting décor. My journey can be just as rich in the cab of a semi, browsing through my clogged bookshelves, or in the eyes of my six-year-old daughter.
That broken heart I suffered a few months ago is currently my most prized possession. And as I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet (which I do every winter to combat seasonal affective disorder), the lines in the eighth letter put a lump in my throat:
“…you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?”
To live inside our sadness with the idea that life is holding us in its hand—that life hasn’t forgotten about us—should fill us with an emotional richness exponentially higher than what we feel when we are madly in love. That this exists safely inside of us, free from the conditional whims of another person, makes it the most valuable possession we could ever own. It is ours alone and cannot be taken away by anyone. There are precious few things in this life we can honestly say that about.
Our sadness, our pain, our broken hearts, if we allow them to—if we fight against the temptation to run away from it or distract ourselves from feeling it—will bestow gifts upon us, the likes of which we have never seen before.