(Posted by Mark)
Bones are brittle, hearts are fickle and promises are made to be broken. Whatever the act of severance, be it physical or emotional, the effects of breaking can be as hard to mend as years of yearning or as simple as a two week plastercast. Sticks and stones, if used with enough force and malevolent intent, may well break my bones, but sadly the playground wisdom requires correction when it comes to the part where words can never hurt me. I’ve had a few broken bones (leg, ankle twice, wrist) but they were healed far more speedily than the little scars which I believe we all bear from words. One of the worst sentences in the English language? Easy: “I don’t love you any more”.
Breaking the routine
Matt Bellamy (no relation to David or Craig) sings “Change everything you are, and everything you were, your number has been called” and I’m not about to disagree with him. Life can be a drudge unless you are very careful to perforate the tedium regularly with changes to the timetable or variances to the pre-established way of things. My own little train tracks of despair are easy to map: home, work, pub, home; in a little five-day cycle which is broken fewer times than I’d like. This isn’t a lament – it’s up to me to break the cycle and I know it.
Breaking a habit, whether it’s the usual series of events every day or an addiction like smoking, takes a measure of willpower; furthermore, most people have a habit of some kind or another, and yes, the less harmful habits count too: biting nails, ice cream, your favourite “can’t miss” TV show – they’re all habits and our acceptance of them in others varies, depending on our own particular vices.
How do we make the change? Well, that’s the prize question, without doubt. You can get patches or gum to combat your nicotine cravings, but unless Ben and Jerry are holding out on us, an ice cream obsession may not have such an obvious escape route. Perhaps if we are to break out of our patterns of living, it’s the smaller things we need to adjust first. Sound easy? Of course it isn’t. When I’ve finally quit smoking, I’ll let you know how it went.
Breaking the ice
Whether a social lacuna has opened up and is threatening to absorb the entire company into the black hole of dullness, or whether you have just arrived at a gathering and know absolutely no-one there, you will need to somehow introduce yourself, get a dialogue moving with some of the people around you and generally begin to integrate into the rest of the party; to adopt a rather overstretched and ridiculous metaphor, you need to break the ice of silence with the icepick of your wit to reveal the fresh-flowing pool of conversation which lies beneath. (I’ve just re-read that sentence. I might need psychiatric help.)
So, how can you go about relieving any awkwardness or discomfort when a silence has lasted just that little bit too long and the expectations of the next speaker have built up to levels where only Churchillian rhetoric would be able to fill the void? Try some of these and see what you think:
- “I hear that the Pope is actually a woman.”
- “Who here have I not told about my operation?”
- “JFK isn’t dead, you know. Neither is Elvis. They live together in a bungalow in Kings Langley.”
- “Did you know that the fastest land mammal is not the cheetah, as believed, but actually my mother-in-law?”
- “Do you say ‘lattay’ or ‘lartay’, out of interest? I only ask because I read this piece …”
With any luck (and you’ll need luck), the response to any of these all-gold nuggets of ice-breaking will be either (a) open and ill-controlled laughter, or (b) some kind of considered and sincere response. If it is option (b), then you will be able to ridicule your respondent successfully for the rest of the evening and you stand a very good chance of being regarded by your peers as a god of comedy. Either that or a very mean-spirited and sarcastic person, but the difference between the two is very fine.
If surrealism or outright lies seem inappropriate for breaking the ice (a first date or a funeral are good examples), then you may be forced to sit back, concentrate fiercely, and fake some sincerity. Sincerity always plays well with other people as it gives the impression that you actually care what they are saying or whether they are breathing, and people like to feel cared about. Really the only trick here is the old husbands’ favourite: memorise the last five words the other person has said, then ask a question based on whatever information those five words have contained. The other person will be sufficiently enthused that you have bothered to do even that much that they will witter on for hours, like as not. You’re on a hiding to nothing if they don’t.
Some promises don’t really count – we all know that, so it’s no use pretending that every single promise you ever make will be held fast and true for the rest of life and unto eternity. Just as there are big lies and little lies, so there are important promises and minor promises and we all have our own ways of distinguishing between them. I would suggest that there is a great difference between breaking a promise that you will be able to give someone a lift to the train station and breaking a promise that you will be faithful to your partner. There’s a sliding scale and although I or you or your partner or your best friend can choose a point at which you shouldn’t break promises of such-and-such level of importance, the only person who really knows what they would and would not do is you.
Not only do we break the promises we make, sometimes we also make promises which from the outset we have no possible way of keeping. Herein lies an unbreakable: optimism. You hold your lover’s hand, stare intently at the face which makes you want to be a better person, slide the back of your hand down their cheek, brush away a tiny fleck of hair back over their ear and say to them: “I will never hurt you”. And you mean it. At the point, at that frozen moment, you mean it with every sinew straining, every nerve tingling, every excitable heartbeat. But one day, you will hurt them. You may not wish to, but you will; it’s unavoidable, but it won’t stop you promising.
Breaking your heart
Breaking your heart invariably involves the breaking of promises; some important promises and some less important. I’m sitting at the keyboard thinking about what I can write about heartbreak and I have just realised that my stomach is churning a little bit, I’ve stared into space now for a good few minutes, and I’m thinking about tidying up a few things. I don’t want to write about heartbreak, because that means I’m going to have to relive it, doesn’t it? And that’s the last thing anyone wants to do; however happy and settled you may be right now, however in love with your current partner, however comfortable in your current stage of life, you don’t want to think about the time when you had committed so much and then had it all destroyed.
Perhaps that’s why, in serious break-ups, both people cry. The breaker and the broken both cry for themselves and for each other, for the pain they have caused and the pain they are feeling. Amid the tears, there are justifications, counter-arguments, pleadings, denials, arguments, old ground retrodden, infidelities relived, memories burnished and then sullied – but there are definitely tears. I wonder whether it would be possible to go around the world and let each person visit places they have lived or seen and allow them to place a small red plaque at every appropriate place, with the plaque reading: “A part of me broke here”. And if we could do that, would there be any other colour than red anywhere?
But we bounce back from our disappointments and from the aching. Although the science of breaking is generally a negative one, there’s always the possibility that whatever has been broken may one day be fixed, good as new.