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Broken hearts and Valentines

Broken hearts and Valentines

As Valentines Day approaches, Hannah Rich considers the way people use the language and imagery of hearts to talk about love. 12/02/2019

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I’ve always found Valentine’s Day strange. It’s a season when images of hearts, overused at the best of times, are everywhere. The little red emoji which expresses everything from true love, mild approval to just the wordless recognition that something has been seen. I’m personally quite prone to using the ‘heart eyes’ icon in response to the most banal of messages from close friends.

Perhaps ‘love’ has lost some of its superlative meaning. After all, what does it mean to tell someone we love them, when love is also the word we use to describe our feelings about a favourite boxset, the colour of a friend’s new jumper or the taste of ice cream?

What is a pink heart–shaped foil balloon really meant to convey when it represents both the beating organ that sustains life itself and the reaction to a particularly good Facebook post? I recently saw a Valentine’s Day card in a shop which simply read ‘you’re my favourite notification’, which is the most millennial of emotional declarations.

Hearts are metaphorical things for breaking and making, stealing and healing – all of which is a bit jarring when the brokenness of a heart is a literal thing too.

I was born with a hole right in the middle of my heart, like Cupid’s arrow hitting a perfect bullseye and sending blood flowing in all sorts of directions it isn’t supposed to. When I was a child, I dabbled for a while with the dream of being a heart surgeon, because they were the best people I knew. Mine had huge hands and kind eyes, my own big friendly giant. He would smile and rub the cold silver of the stethoscope between his palms before listening to my heart beat. I giggled every time. He had a beard a bit like a picture book Jesus and I guess it’s true that he saved me.

I’m told the surgeon almost broke a toe kicking a filing cabinet in frustration when a bed in intensive care fell through and an operation had to be postponed at the eleventh hour. I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel that intensely on behalf of a stranger’s broken–hearted baby.

If you’ve never considered how often the language of hearts being damaged and mended is spoken in everyday life, let me tell you that it’s everywhere. Sometimes, it’s a cheesy pop song about a broken heart that will pull me up short in a supermarket aisle, or a careless idiom that catches me unawares. The heart of the matter is that heartstrings tugged or hearts worn on sleeves are as much reminders of a leaky valve as the shiny white scar down my chest.

Faith is woven with the language of the heart too. None of the psalmists wrote about trusting God with any other internal organs, save for perhaps a few verses about the breath in your lungs. If it’s your kidneys that don’t work properly, you don’t have to sing about it every Sunday. There are no lines of liturgy encouraging us to give our livers in commitment to God. But when your actual physical heart is imperfect and holey, it’s almost impossible not to notice it in every chorus about giving your whole heart to God and wanting it to become more holy.

In a complicated world, it might be comforting to find things neatly packaged and card–shop glossy. But just as real hearts aren’t as perfectly formed as the heart emoji, real lives aren’t as tidy as high street marketers would have us think. Love isn’t tidy, it is as gritty, human and paradoxically life–giving as a surgeon’s broken toe. When hearts break, even metaphorically, they don’t crack along a perfect zigzag into two jigsaw piece halves.

‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,’ wrote St Augustine, speaking of our relationship with God. Perhaps our hearts, leaky and broken as they may be, will always be restless if they are looking for a picture–perfect image of love that is far from the truth of life.

 Image by by Ahmet Misirligul under a Shutterstock licence. 

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 12 February 2019

Christianity, Faith, Identity, Society


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