Post 12: In Praise of Heartbreak

“Nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love.”

It is when life becomes that needle, slowly scratching the vinyl record and taking away bits of our soul, when it bends us to its will and we don’t break that we learn what we are made of, and nowhere more so than in heartbreak, that outermost extremity of the discomfiting principle that ‘frustration is essential for satisfaction in love’.

Photograph by Hyokee Min

In the summer of 1881, while visiting his parents, Vincent van Gogh fell in love with a woman named Cornelia Adriana Vos-Stricker — a beautiful, recently widowed young mother. It was quickly warped by romantic lopsidedness — Vincent fell passionately in love with Cornelia, who was too raw with grief to open up to the possibility of a new life. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she rebuffed him gently yet firmly. But like any hopeful lover confronting hopelessness, Van Gogh warded off dejection with denial and, mistaking her gentleness for ambivalence, led himself to believe that he still had a chance if only he tried harder. (Most human heartbreak stems from this half-arrogant, half-naïve tendency of ours to believe that we can change the course of events and the feelings of others by bending, twisting, and exerting ourselves a little bit more, as if the entirety of their free will was a function of our own actions.) Although Van Gogh’s infatuation ultimately ended in heartbreak, in the process of working through it he found himself and his art come alive in a new way — a beautiful and poignant reminder that our sorrow and our creative vitality spring from the same source.

David Whyte on Heartbreak and unrequited (not returned) love:

“Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.”

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

“Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.”


Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a measurement of the depth of our desires — for a person, for an accomplishment, or for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. One of the most common sources of heartbreak, of course, is unrequited love. But, once again, Whyte shines a sidewise gleam on the obscured essence of another experience we mistake for a failure rather than a triumph of our humanity — for unrequited love is the only kind of love there is, in any real sense:

“Unrequited love is the love human beings experience most of the time. The very need to be fully requited may be to turn from the possibilities of love itself. Men and women have always had difficulty with the way a love returned hardly ever resembles a love given, but unrequited love may be the form that love mostly takes; for what affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? … And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need? The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation.”

Indeed, most of our dissatisfaction with life stems from wishing for the present moment to be somehow different, somehow better conforming to the rigid expectation we set for it at some point in the past. And yet nowhere is this rigidity of requirement more stifling than in love — that glorious dynamic interaction of souls responsive to one another, which requires a constant learning and relearning of a common language.


Ayush Agrawal