“Be careful not to seek yourself in love, you can end up with a broken heart that way.”
Therese of Lisieux wrote that. But what exactly does she mean, given that most of the time love will break our hearts anyway even if we’re not seeking ourselves?
The heart breaks in different ways. It can break in a way that softens, purifies, and stretches it in love and selflessness, or it can break in way that makes it bitter, jealous, and cold. Heartbreaks can be warm or cold and, either way, the pain will bring us to our knees and that moment will define us, one way or the other. Let’s look at an example:
At the end of the Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables, there’s a particularly poignant scene where Jean Val Jean, now an old man, is praying in a inordinately lonely moment. It’s the evening of his adopted daughter’s wedding, a celebration he is unable to attend. He is on his knees, painfully alone, physically ill, emotionally drained, and acutely aware that the young woman who has brought so much joy and meaning to his life will now be drawing her life from someone else. Indeed she is dancing and celebrating at this very moment when his grief in losing her is so great.
But, despite the pain, his heart is at peace, joyful even, at the knowledge that the young man she has fallen in love with and is marrying will provide her with the very joy that he, as her father, could not give her. In the moment of his deepest loss, he is able to be happy for her and to withdraw quietly without bitterness into that self- effacement and solitude that loss and aging eventually ask of us all. As his heart is breaking, he blesses and lets go, knowing that what is most important, his daughter’s happiness, is assured and that, given the mystery of love, his own relationship to his daughter is ensured by his gracefully letting go.
That’s one example of a heart breaking, in a good way. The opposite is the heartbreak we experience when we lose somebody and our hearts freeze over in jealousy and bitterness. What that bitterness and coldness reveal in fact is that, all along, it was not the other’s well-being we had been seeking, but our own. The proof is that now, when we can no longer be the primary relationship in that other person’s life, we no longer really wish him or her well. Indeed, not so subtle is the wish that a certain unhappiness will befall that other, so that he or she will know that it was a mistake to no longer remain primarily invested in us.
That’s the antithesis of the blessing we see at the end of Les Miserables where Jean Val Jean, despite the pain of his own loss, can rejoice that someone else can be a more powerful instrument of happiness than he in his daughter’s life. He can be happy because his love is for his daughter, not for himself.
Notice what underlies a murder-suicide. There is a broken heart, but when it breaks a rage spews forth that reveals that, all along, the love has not been for the other but for oneself. The cold truth becomes clear: If I can’t be the main person in her life, nobody will be! Better her dead, than without me! What kind of love has this been along the way?
We replicate this in subtle ways: Indeed many of the tears we shed are cried not for others but for ourselves. We may think we’re crying about someone else’s pain, but, more often than not, what is revealed in our tears is more our own possessiveness than our compassion, more our own brokenness than the wounds over which we think we are weeping. In our tears, just as in love, we are often unconsciously seeking ourselves.
We replicate this too, more than we think, in our good deeds and generosity towards others. We can be generous, big-hearted, self- sacrificing, and helpful, as long as we are assured that we are needed, that we are important, that nobody else can quite provide what we are giving. But, should we one day find out that someone else has arrived who is wanted more than we are, we can very quickly become cool and distant, resentful even, because someone else is providing a help and a happiness instead of us, perhaps healthier and deeper than ours. The resentment we feel betrays that, to a large measure, what we were seeking in our generosity was ourselves, not someone else’s happiness.
All of this, of course, can be even more painfully true when we fall in love and experience the heartaches and heartbreaks that go with that.
And so is a doctor’s warning, a health warning, a fair warning: “Be careful not to seek yourself in love, you can end up with a broken heart that way.”