The Heart of Theseus

Modern literature and pop culture is rife with references to broken hearts. From Whitney Houston to Shinedown, from Nora Ephron to Rupi Kaur, from New Girl to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, you can’t turn around without bumping into someone who has survived a broken heart, is surviving one now, or is about to suffer through the debilitation of having their heart ripped out of their chest and stomped on.

And yet, this imagery has never rung true with me. The most glaringly silly example that I can think of is Padme dying of a “broken heart” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and I’m not the only one who thought this was silly, albeit for different reasons.

The imagery of a broken heart carries with it the idea that something inside of you is broken and in need of fixing, when the opposite is actually true. When someone betrays you or acts in such a way that is contrary to what you were expecting, it is not an indication of some short-coming within yourself. It is in indicator of something missing within them.

Setting aside the fact that your (emotional) heart is located in your head and not your chest, I prefer to think of the heart – that part of you that feels and cares and loves – as an ever-evolving entity that is constantly changing and growing. It is not stagnant; it learns new things, forgets old pains, overcomes previous prejudices, perseveres onward.

When I was young, my mother and step-father tended to punish my sloppy ways by yelling at me or threatening me with a beating with one of my orange Hot Wheels tracks, but occasionally they’d get fed up with trying to correct my behavior, so they’d gather up all of the comic books I’d left lying around and throw them in the burn barrel. My ten-year-old self was traumatized by this betrayal, but it didn’t break my heart. It was an experience I internalized.

When my first marriage ended, I truly felt broken. Not in the “oh-how-will-I-go-on?” sense, but more in the “what’s-wrong-with-me?” sense. I felt I had failed in one of the most basic tasks in life, making a home with a partner. How could I possibly be successful in any other endeavor if I couldn’t do this one simple thing properly? However, I was still able to fully function on a day-to-day basis, so obviously I wasn’t that broken.

Over time, I have come to realize that the heart doesn’t truly break. It takes on more experience, letting old situations go in favor of new ones. My heart is not the same today as it was when I was ten, or thirty. And yet, it’s the exact same heart I’ve always had. How is that even possible?

When something is broken, it doesn’t work any longer. Well, that’s not entirely true – even a broken clock is correct twice a day. But for all intents and purposes, a broken clock is useless for anything more than decorating the wall in the guest bathroom.

The heart, I’ve found, is more resilient than that. With apologies to both John Mayer and Celine Dion, rather than being broken and in need of repair, the heart goes on, continuing to feel and care and love despite all indications to the opposite. And with each new joyous experience, an older, more painful experience is expunged, until one day you feel whole again, and capable of once again giving your heart to someone. Your same old heart, though experience and attrition, has become something new.

That’s been my experience, anyway.

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