§ Symbols are an emotional GPS
No scientist in the world can create a symbol in his lab, nor choose the symbols, values, stories, myths we live by. Yet, this is the work that the heartbroken individual must do.
In times of bows and arrows, heartbreak was often symbolized by an arrow piercing the heart; but it is also imagined as a knife sticking out, a gunshot, a ferocious animal tearing the heart from the living body. One feels stuck in quicksand, in tar pit, crucified, shunned, drowning, choking, hemorrhaging. It can be felt like an amputation, a paralysis, a trial, a snake in the bed, a spy in the kingdom, poison in the apple, arsenic in the drink. A widow may feel like an orphan, even though she lost her husband and not her parent. Another feels like a fool, or like a beggar, or like a dismissed servant, or like a defeated general. I have interviewed individuals who felt their heartbreak was an experience of ambush, a test of strength, a season in hell, a glaciation, a forest fire, a tsunami, a bankruptcy, a visitation by an evil alien, an infection of the heart… the number of possible metaphors is infinite.
To heal, one must first find how the heartbreak is symbolized, imagined, felt. To find the image, one must put aside causal explanations, stop asking why and look instead at the style of one’s suffering: is the heart rotting, rioting, bursting, burning? Is one on the cross, in the pits, in prison, in cold hell, hot hell, purgatory, alone in the desert, in prison, subjected to torture, to humiliation, to dismissal, rejection, abjection? What is the movie playing in the inner cinema? Heartbreak-through starts by taking an inventory of all the psychic imagery active in the brain. If not the arrow in the heart, then what? No resolution can happen without first imagining it.
§ The pin on the map
Healing happens with a new conscious standpoint that transcends the previous opposition between love and hate, security and freedom. This new consciousness (a new myth of love) expresses itself in metaphors. Finding the symbol, the metaphor, is like looking at the pin on the map in the mall that says: you are here. It acts like a psychic GPS. It is crucial help because bereavement typically includes a sense of radical disorientation. We feel lost in the unfamiliar, desolate, hostile loveless world of the cold crocodile and needy puppy. Our restlessness is a searching behavior that is part of the survival instinct of the mammal: "Where are you, my beloved? Stop hiding, come back to me, don't disappear on me." We imagine seeing the partner at the supermarket, at the pharmacy, at the bank. This instinctual impulse to search for what was lost will go on even as the rational mind knows it is lost forever; it is a radical disorientation, because the territory where the loss happened is nowhere and everywhere. Loss of a loved one makes one disoriented, homeless, exiled, orphaned, a tourist in a hostile country with no map, no credit card, no passport, no GPS.
Our metaphors are never definitive; one has to watch how they morph and adapt to the ever-changing emotional terrain. With each major increase of consciousness, the inner album of images must be updated. We easily understand why a scientist must not be too attached to a particular metaphor, because when research reveals something new, the metaphor has to change as well. Psychologists can only agree with Colin Turbayne when he points out that although scientific concepts are inevitably metaphoric, "there is a difference between using a metaphor and being used by it; between using a model and mistaking the model for the thing modeled. The one is to make believe that something is the case, the other is to believe it." Agreed! The same is true in formulating one's emotions: finding the right image is crucial to recovery but the process needs to be kept supple, and the inner image to change with the evolution of the affect. The book shows examples of this process through vignettes and stories.
§ The chemical and the cultural
Neuroscience demonstrates how the conversations we have, the books we read, the films, the songs, the ideas, the friends, the architecture of our houses, the beauty or ugliness of our cities, the climate, the symbols, the stories, the values, the ideologies, the religions, and myths we live by . . . all contribute—or fail to contribute—to the chemical balance or unbalance in our brain. Building new synaptic connections, or losing them, makes us who we are, who we become, how we evolve and thrive, or regress and get sick.
Research explains how the brain's capacity for neuronal reconfiguration depends on our capacity to first imagine and then try new ways of being; it demonstrates the necessity of a rich symbolic life for the health of our neurons. Yet, delivering that rich inner life, delivering those books, films, friends, values, stories that have the capacity to push the neurons around is not a prerogative of science. In other words, neuroscience cannot open our imagination, deepen our psyche, produce symbols and meaning; that capacity belongs to relationships, to art, to depth psychology, in short, to the humanities.
The many heartbroken individuals who slowly deteriorate, and live the rest of their lives with a scarred and scared heart, are those who remain isolated in an old myth of love, one in which partners have a life ownership of each other, because that is how religion, laws, and culture defined it for so long. This tradition is broken. Heartbreak precipitates the need for another step in maturation, an evolutionary jump.
§ Destiny and destination
There seem to be only two peak experiences for which humans have been willing to die: love and freedom. All our lives, we keep learning how to love better and how to free ourselves of all kinds of bondage. We constantly cope with the tension that opposes those two spiritual summits, each with its unique path. Heartbreak initially deprives us of both love and freedom; we are brought to our knees, begging for love, our heart incapable of freeing itself from the broken bond. The most common temptation is to take the path that we believe will restore attachment. When heartbroken, the wise thing to do is to aim for freedom, for as long as it takes to clear the psyche of its infantile panic. Regression always signals that it is time to up the level of freedom.
Paradoxically, even when the final objective is to find love again, it becomes possible only after one successfully regains some measure of autonomy; otherwise, we are back in the swamp of fusional relationships and their infernal cycle of attraction-infatuation-disappointment.
Those who come out on the other side of the desert of heartbreak all make a surprising discovery: at the bottom of what was the pathetic, regressed, shameful, shameless, needy, vulnerable , incompetent ‘me’, there is something wider, deeper and much more interesting: a new world view. It is from that deepest core of our being that the beauty of life begins pulsating again.
Although dogs, dolphins, and elephants do experience heartbreak, the resolution of human heartbreak involves all aspects of our humanity, including the moral dimensions of loving another free human being who does not owe us love, like a parent owes loving care to a child.
Neuropsychology has demonstrated how what eventually depresses the bereaved is not, in itself, the betrayal or the loss, but the emotional shutting down that accompanies a passive waiting for rescue.
Popular magazines are filled with stories of people whose money and glory allow them to remain immature without consequences, because it helps the consumer fantasize: “If only I had that kind of money, I sure would indulge in . . . ” The advertising industry is based on the fact that having money is universally attractive, because it offers a kind of freedom, but it also offers the seductive option of remaining a spoiled adult, always at the receiving end.
There is, of course, a positive side to passivity and it is a capacity to receive; without it, we could not, past infancy, trust anybody to take care of any of our needs. Our delight in passivity comes with our biological makeup, which allows us to experience the sensuality of human exchanges. A capacity to receive is a magnificent gift from life. Nevertheless, a healthy human being also wants to develop the opposite principle, the active principle that controls these sources of pleasure; but heartbreak deprives us of all passive pleasure. Being deprived of protection is a trauma that replicates the powerlessness of infantile passivity.
The push and pull between dependence and autonomy appears first in adolescence and reappears acutely with every heartbreak. Healing from heartbreak involves some of the same challenges faced by our adolescent self : breaking free, moving out, and forging an identity.
I examine strategies for succeeding in that second adolescence.
Dr. Ginette Paris is core faculty in the M.A./Ph.D. Mythological Studies program at Pacifica. Her book Heartbreak: New Approaches to Healing - Recovering from lost love and mourning oscillates between the point of view from a teacher/researcher, therapist, and subject.
"Ginette Paris is a master of metaphor. And when you are shattered by lost love only metaphor begins to reach through your bewildered mind to speak to your aching heart." -Sandra Lee Dennis, Ph.D.