To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.
Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
― C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”
Heartbreak is awful, but truth be told, if you have never had your heart broken, then you aren’t fully living. I want you to ask yourself this question because I want you to bask in the fullness of life. And in order to feel life—to experience life—you need to take risks. When you open your heart, you risk having it broken; or stated more accurately, it will be broken. But do it anyway; open yourself up. If you don’t, you will never know what it means to live, to love and to be with others.
Heartbreak isn’t just in the context of romantic relationships, either. Before you can experience what is called romantic love, you first have to live with an orientation toward love. Erich Fromm states, “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an ordination of character, which determines the relatedness of the person to the whole world as a whole, not toward one object of love.”
I have had my heart broken many times. Some were in the context of a romantic relationship, but the most painful times were not. Before I lost my mother—more than eight years ago now—I thought I had endured the worst of heartache. Having taken risks with men in romance, I had my heart splattered and my self-esteem smashed to pieces numerous times. Sometimes it hurt so much, I felt like I would be broken forever.
Each time, my mother would advise me: “You have to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, spend some time with yourself, then do it again.” It meant putting my heart on the line again; risk having it splattered again. If I didn’t, she said I would be living in a protective bubble, cut off from the possibility of loving. And well… she was right; she was always right when it came to matters of the heart.
What I didn’t know then, but unfortunately know now, is that these crushing romances were nothing compared to how broken my heart was—is—after losing her. And this may seem silly to you, but a little more than six years after losing my mom, I lost my cat, Snoopy, to the exact same assailant—pancreatic cancer.
Not that I was recovered from losing my mom at the time I lost Snoopy. In fact, I will never recover from losing my mom, and I don’t want to. I am learning to live without her, but I will never totally recover. There is a piece of my heart missing and that missing piece keeps me connected to her. Feeling her absence is painful, but it keeps her alive; and so the grief is soothing in this way. It reminds me of how much she meant—means—to me. How she forever is with me all the time, everyday, through good and bad. I remember.
Snoopy was my best friend. And he was with me through numerous romantic heartaches, as well as being by my side following the loss of my mom. Sensing I needed comfort, he would lay on my chest, his little head resting in the crease of my neck. He would rub his head against mine over and over. And at night, he would jump in his spot just to the right of me and would purr me to sleep as he rested his little head on my right arm. This was every night for eleven years. When I lost him, I was devastated, heartbroken—still am. Then the emotional experience of loss and grief over Snoopy caused me to re-experience the loss of my mom in overwhelming magnitude—the way it felt after it just happened.
I lost them both in October (my mom’s favorite month). I love fall, as my mom did. But the emergence of fall, the touch of crispness in the October air, the angle of the sun, the colorful leaves, and the promise of winter always feels like a time of transition to me. Maybe it’s because I was in school for most of my life. But fall—October in particular—always felt and still feels like both a beginning and end. And now that October is a time of loss for me, it stirs up a lot of feelings.
So how does this all relate to my running? Running is a relationship. I am in a relationship with running. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? To be-a-runner you have to know risk. You can’t really put yourself out there as a runner without pushing yourself past your limits—even if you are a recreational runner and not necessarily looking to push your limits in a race. Running is hard work and you have to be willing to confront adversity to do it. In confronting external adversity—be it the wind, rain, snow, heat, cold, a big hill—we learn to overcome life challenges. We learn we can be in discomfort and not break down. We learn to push through discomfort and that we are stronger than we thought.
We also confront internal adversity. When we want to give up because it is hard or avoid a hill because it seems insurmountable, we learn to keep going. Through this risk—taking the challenge of running—we learn we can do this off-road, as well. So if you are afraid of heartbreak, of opening yourself up to being hurt, rejected, abandoned, running will teach you that you need not be afraid. No matter what happens, you can handle it. You have the ability to be hurt and not have it break you. You are stronger than you thought and so you feel confident enough to face the challenges and risks of love. It may seem paradoxical, but being able to be vulnerable in a relationship is a sign of strength, not weakness. And running keeps you strong both physically and mentally in a very real way.
Some days the loss of my mother hits me like a ton of bricks; the magnitude of the loss washes over me. It hurts to go on. I feel like dying or that part of me is dead. So I do what I always do, I go for a run. And out there I am reminded of what my mother always taught me and what the road teaches me every day: There is a reason to live and just when I want to give up, I will find the strength to go on.
If you are suffering from heartbreak—if any of this resonates—I highly recommend running or another endurance sport. It will help you. Some of my strongest races were after a romantic breakup. Running is a relationship that has taught me how to live with adversity—face it, overcome it and/or just be with it knowing that I can live and live fully in spite of it.
Running strengthens your heart both literally and figuratively.