What an amazing thing we try for, when we launch a serious relationship. We’re picking one person, out of all the people in the world, to form a couple with, and around that couple we hope to structure our whole life—domestic, emotional, social, and financial, often including children. It’s amazing we ever have the temerity to place such a bet. The only way to do that is to really believe in it. It’s like founding your own religion. The belief in your partner becomes your central dogma.

So when that platform fails, when suddenly you find that this person isn’t going to be the one after all, the whole edifice of your life seems to slip, as if it has lost its moorings. There’s a sense that the whole universe has gone crazy, has tilted madly. The world isn’t right anymore. Your coordinates of truth have been knocked askew.

Even when you instigated the breakup, this can be true: your belief in the universe that the two of you represented, is gone. So how do you believe in anything?
We end up in a world that doesn’t feel crazy, but in fact it may be crazy.

We can’t live very long with that first crazy feeling, so after a while we have to erect a new belief system to substitute for the old one. And that’s when things get tricky, because the new system has to remove anything that may have led to the collapse of the old one. And the easiest way to do that is to get rid of the parts that made hope possible in the first place.

We end up in a world that doesn’t feel crazy—that’s what makes us more comfortable there—but in fact it may be crazy. In order to understand its insanity, we need to look harder at the madness that led to it, and still infects its timbers. That initial feeling of disorientation, that tilting feeling, which follows a breakup. I’m going to offer some comparisons here, to capture the sense of unreality, the surreal sensation, that is so hard to deal with. What is that experience like?

It’s like what a child feels when her parents divorce. I lie in my bedroom at night —or is it still my bedroom? It is on some nights . . . I don’t feel safe. The walls that kept the night away, they don’t feel so solid anymore. The big world can get me. The grownups had my back, so I could be a kid. Now I’m not so sure. I don’t feel the same way about them anymore. Or myself. It’s like what an adult feels when his parents die. Again, the buffer is gone. There’s no one between me and the grim reaper. I’m next on his list.

Moving even closer to religion, it’s like what one feels when one’s friend is struck down by a senseless accident. This is when people tend to lose their faith. They say, “The god I believed in wouldn’t have let this happen.” It’s like having the world’s best job, and one Friday morning they come to your office and they tell you to collect your things—just your personal effects—and they escort you out of the building. You didn’t
suspect a thing. You were doing a good job. Your position was solid.
This can’t be happening.
It’s a little like watching those towers come down. (I’m referring to the disbelief of seeing the physical structures collapse, and not the other sorrows of that grievous day.)

Things that were always true, aren’t true anymore.
• You don’t believe that other people are basically good, or that you understand them. Especially members of the opposite sex.
• You don’t trust your own goodness; it doesn’t seem obvious anymore that you deserve to be happy with someone.
• You doubt that any couples are really happy.
• You doubt your own judgment. You’ve always been a good judge of character, and in this instance you certainly did your very best to pick out a fine partner. And now it’s all gone to hell, so what does that say about your discernment?
• In particular, you doubt your own ability to detect fraud. You keep sifting through all the clues that were in the situation. All the signs that something was wrong. Apparently you could stare right at them and think they were fine. “I don’t know the real thing from the fake,” you tell yourself. “I don’t know a healthy relationship
from a travesty. Maybe they’re all fake, all travesties.”

So you conclude that nothing is what it seems. “What a fool I was,” you think. “I took everything at face value; I was so naïve.” You walk out the front door and the street feels different. Everything seems worthy of a certain suspicion. The tree may drop a limb on you if you walk blithely beneath it. The grass may contain a wasp’s nest. The people on the sidewalk are up to something. The cars all carry some smug secret, some mockery that may be at your expense. How did you ever believe in love?

John Donne wrote a poem once in which he said, “And now goodmorrow to our waking souls, which watch not one another out of fear.” And now you think, wouldn’t that be nice, to look at someone without any trepidation. But that’s exactly what you no longer know how to do.

You’ve lost your innocence.
I don’t mean naivety here—that’s a good thing to lose—I mean a deeper thing. A bad breakup can seriously affect your spiritual health, for a long time. It can mire you in what some traditions would call a “fallen world.” I want to unmask that impaired place, and to point a way out. To do that I’m going to walk us through a spiritual “landscape,” slightly exaggerated to reveal its true nature. That will help us see it for what it is, which is the first step in breaking free. why a fallen world is a bad place to live A fallen world is a seductive place.
It is a secure place, where you can count on things being the way you expect them to be. Namely, mediocre.

No surprises here.

It’s a safe place: you are not called on to take any serious risks.
And it’s an amiable place: there’s plenty of company. Maybe a lot of them are disillusioned, cynical, defeated. But they’re nice to have around, because they agree that there never was any hope and what
happened to you was inevitable. It happened to them too.
It’s a place where a constant dull pain is considered normal, and that’s why painkillers are considered life’s greatest invention. A fine world, this fallen one, except for one problem. It was constructed out of insanity. The builder (your psyche) took the madness, the sense of nauseating disorientation that struck you when your relationship first fell apart, and found a way to contain it, to shift the crushing weight of it, by spreading it out, graying it over, extending it through time.

Your old beliefs that we listed, the ones that trembled in the balance when the first shock hit, are missing now. They are nowhere to be found in the new world. It is sustained by the opposite principles.
If you strip off the façade of its buildings, you will find support timbers that say things like: All men are bad. You are unworthy of love. All couples are miserable. Your judgment is faulty. The earlier beliefs, now replaced, were what made love possible. This new world has taken the doubts that beset you in your stricken moment, and has enshrined them as dusty law.

The main enterprise of a fallen world is the avoidance of reality.
That can be done in so many ways. Most of them involve addictive behavior. What you want is to forget the positive vision you once had, and how awful it was when it fell apart. Addictions are really good for that purpose. Everything from sleep to drugs to alcohol to TV will pitch in and do its part.
It’s a world where sins of omission reign supreme. (Sins of commission require too much passion.) You think of something to say at work—something that could solve a problem—but it might make waves, so you don’t. You see someone interesting across a room, but they might not like you so you don’t smile. You shy away, shy away, close the blind, close the door, close your mind.

Your life becomes a web of habits that forms a shroud over feelings that are too painful to face. And memories that are easier ignored. You’ve lost your innocence.

the way out
Is there any way to get it back?
Again, spiritual traditions have an interesting answer. They say, a god has to die. According to the ancient
Egyptian mystery religion, a man-god has to die on a tree, and be reborn, and then the rain will come again and the crops will grow. The waste land will turn green.

If you take that as a metaphor, it tells us what has to happen within your soul, when you are in this predicament. Something has to die in your soul, so that something can be reborn.

Which leads to a rather surprising prescription for what ails you, when you have lost your heart’s spark.
That is to concentrate on the parts of your being that are most screamingly idealistic, most prone to hope—and follow those impulses.

Devote yourself to the things you would believe in if the world were right again.
Dedicate yourself to others. Give some form of service to help the needy or the suffering. Or the planet. Fight for a losing cause that has merit. (People who did that are the reason some of those causes eventually won.) Take the dream you have neglected for years— the thing that scares you the most—and go for it. Get rid of the things (and people) in your life that pander to discouragement and Devote yourself to the things
you would believe in if the world were right again.

Say, “If the world has given up, that is just one more reason why I won’t.”
It may not be time yet to try for love. So try for something else, something that isn’t a need of your own. Something you believe in. Then a strange thing will happen. You will start to meet people who don’t fit in a fallen world. That is because you will be leaving it behind.

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