You wouldn’t think I’d need the Universe to tell me to get out of my comfort zone. It hasn’t been that much comfort for a long time. Just familiar. A familiar zone. The path of least resistance. I keep trying to “change up”, meet new people, take on new volunteer commitments, remember to breathe. Objectively speaking my life is far from a disaster zone. I could write a long list of the good things and good people in my life. And yet there is dis-comfort. Dis-ease. Dys-phoria. It starts to sound like I’m entering the medical realm. Which is NOT where I want to go, and not what I think this is about. Though for years I did think that. The body does strange things in response to old and new emotional wounds, especially the ones we don’t let ourselves experience and heal from, especially as it ages.
At sixty-seven, I know through direct experience –mine– that the body situation is inexorably a downhill one. I also watched my own father who was still playing serious handball (a terrifyingly fast and life-threatening sport) into his mid-60s, and riding his bike in his 70s, go seriously downhill in his late 80s, with no diagnosed malady. Just the body aging and weakening to the point his legs wouldn’t hold him up, couldn’t take a step. How could this 6 foot tower of strength, handball champion go without injury or illness so impressively for so long, then, like a slow motion train wreck, but soundless and without trauma, move right on into frailty, and death?
My mother, at 95 (in 3 weeks), is doing great, still walking, still engaging, still with more of her marbles than many 60 year olds. She has a great two bedroom, two bath apartment in a wonderful independent living place in Phoenix. Every afternoon, she gathers with 7 other people for the earlier-than-early-bird dinner at a round table in the big dining hall. A rather handsome 90 something year old who looks young for his age, and has a terrific broad smile, teeth flashing white against his rich brown east Indian skin is one of her regular dining companions. His name is Matt and apparently smiling is what he does best. I was told he doesn’t talk because he can’t remember anything from one minute to the next, but when I went over and sat next to him and asked him a question, he started telling me about his life as a nuclear physicist. (He was not making this up. He WAS a nuclear physicist.) But mostly he just sits there, eating, alone in his world. Smiling when anyone makes contact. It’s enough to break your heart. A fraction of this whole world is enough to break your heart, not to mention the whole of this whole world.
Cheryl Strayed, in one of her Sugar columns, wrote to an advice-seeker, “Be brave enough to break your own heart”. I have this printed on a pink bracelet I got at a workshop I took with her two years ago (and now also on a coffee mug I won in a trivia contest at the last workshop I attended). It’s always intrigued me because I really don’t know what it means. But I know Sugar (Cheryl) is brilliant and it means something important. In the meantime, heart break finds me daily (I only have to read my Facebook feed and listen to NPR). I try to be brave enough to just deal with that, never mind adding to it with breaking my own heart.
Still I can’t help wondering about this quote, if and how I will finally understand it, and about the bravery I feel and will need more of. Frankly I need a shit load of bravery just to get out of my comfort zone, which I am doing writing this, and need to do more of. And then, more bravery for everything else, including, I guess/hope? when I eventually break my own heart.
4 thoughts on ““Be brave enough to break your own heart”. Sugar”
Your best yet. . .and on one of my favorite subjects these days–aging. I’ve been thinking that of the first three of the Buddha’s “heavenly messengers” (old age, sickness, and death), I’ve somehow thought least about this aging thing. Perhaps our culture has conspired to hide the reality of aging even more than the inevitability of illness and mortality.
What Sugar’s advice means to me is, “Be brave enough to bear witness to the sorrows of the world, be brave enough to be fully present for all of it, or, as Joanna Macy puts it “honor your pain for the world.” This essential step arouses compassion and allows us to see clearly that we’re all part of one interconnected whole, and, while we can’t remedy every ill, we can each play a part.
Looking forward to next week’s installment. . .
Wow, thanks so much for your response Anita. Good for me to contemplate. Actually I think aging is out there, more visible than death and dying, but not in a way that helps us contemplate it. Not in a way that helps us accept the losses it inevitably entails, as well as honoring its benefits. Not in a way that sees it not only as decline, but also a period of growth, deeper understanding and wisdom. For me, that and death are equally important because our own death is going to happen (in whichever form it comes, sudden or lengthy), and because until that happens, there will be an increasing loss of loved ones. To stay awake, and allow the heart break, and be brave and compassionate. It’s huge. xo
What a great essay Gayle. The story about your dad’s decline is pretty scary. That this decline can seemingly come out of nowhere when one has been incredibly physically active their whole life. I have a take on the handsome 90 year old with whom your mom sometimes dines. I like to think that he lives most of the time in quiet meditation of sorts. Maybe that’s where we will all live should we live that long. Good reason to hone our meditation skills now. My mom was always a doer, ambitious, running around, busy. But at the end of her life, I think she was happy with much less, less talking, less doing. I think I will be because if I live that long I think I would be very tired. Keeping up with the world and the news makes me tired. Living fully is hard work. Reading your essay makes me try to visualize myself as an old woman just finally happy with the simplest of living, meditating in what physical pleasure is left. Sitting and napping in the sunlight, or petting a kitty, or listening to the birds, or closing my eyes and feeling peaceful. That may look sad to outsiders. At least your moms 90 year old friend smiled a lot. That makes me think he’s not so unhappy. Anyway……..
As to the quote about having the courage to break your own heart. I have my own understanding of it. I’ve read different variations on it. Oscar Wilde said “Hearts are meant to be broken.” Another buddhist quote said something like “Hearts are meant to be broken open……” so they can expand. I have my own experience of that happening. For me it was allowing my heart to stop being attached to something I couldn’t have. What I couldn’t have was my husband. The decision to leave him was incredibly painful, but my heart finally got it and set me free to live a new life without him.
Well, this certainly got me to thinking about things. Thank you Gayle for your writing and for opening your heart. I love you.
Thank you dear Maxe for writing your reflections here. I think you are right about the smiling 90 something year old. I think his ready smile did reflect, at least in his case, a peaceful happiness. He did not seem to be struggling with his situation at all, though maybe he did earlier on. Who knows? Thank you for the quotes about the heart breaking and breaking open. And for sharing your own personal story of heart break and letting go. Thank you for your courageous showing up and loving in life! I also agree that living fully is hard work! xo