Heartbreak and Shipwreck


“What are your worst fears?” Tammy asked me.

My first reaction was, well, this is a no-brainer. I’ve lived most of my life with anxiety and dread. I should be able to rattle off my fears like a grocery list. And yet my hands lingered over the keyboard. I hesitated. I realized, I don’t know.

I used to fear specifics—getting cancer, dying young, leaving my children motherless. My mother died when she was 36, and for years I feared that ominous age, sure that I wouldn’t survive it. Now I’m 39, and as surreal as it is to be older than my mother, my fear of dying as she did has subsided.

I used to fear abandonment, betrayal, loneliness. I’ve had an ample helping of all three. Over the years I’ve lost family, friends, loves, and countless homes, two of which I loved dearly. I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me so many times, I find I brace myself, literally, physically, for the next fall, even as I sleep. And yet, abandonment, betrayal, and loneliness have become common enough that they’ve lost some of their power to scare me. I can live with these things. I know them all too well.

I used to fear I wouldn’t survive one more dirty trick. But now, at 39, I know I can, and do, and will survive. I’ve endured much physical and emotional pain. I’m stronger than I ever imagined.

And that’s when it hits me. It’s my own strength that scares me now.

I realize I have a capacity for suffering. It’s an ugly, brute thing—not the stuff of pretty inspirational memes—but I can take it. I survive. This is what I do. Perhaps it’s even my gift.

But what good is this knack for survival? What good am I to the world, lying here wrecked on the beach—tossed and buffeted by the waves, and yet born along to some unknown shore, alive, but just barely?

Sometimes, in those moments—when I realize the storm has passed, and I’m still here, breathing—death has seemed like the ultimate mercy. I admit that I’ve prayed for it. I’ve begged God to take my soul out of the earth and turn my body to dust. Grim, I know. Scary.

But God has not answered me with death. I prayed and found myself alive. I’ve staggered to my feet and learned to walk again.

So what now? Do I let these wounds scab over, become closed and hard? Do I cower and tremble, waiting for the next blow?

What if, instead, knowing my own strength, I let my wounds be as they are—open, soft, aching? What if knowing I can and do and will survive means I can afford to be gentler, more tender? What if it means I can risk heartbreak and shipwreck? That I can live and love with abandon?

My friend has a vintage holy card of the sacred heart of Mary. It’s a fleshy, realistic heart pierced by multiples swords, an expression of Simeon’s prophecy over the young mother of the infant Christ: And you yourself a sword will pierce. What I love about the image is that the swords remain—they have gone too deep to ever be extracted. And yet this sacred heart overflows not just with blood but with flowers.  

Here is my hope: Because I have known and survived much pain, I will no longer answer to fear. I’m not saying I won’t be afraid. But I won’t run and I won’t cower—not from my pain, and not from yours. I will call out, for both of us, to a God who answers death with life. I will imagine the swords in our hearts as signs of our strength, not defeat.

Jessica Mesman Griffith

Jessica Mesman Griffith

Associate Editor at Mind & Spirit
Jessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published writer whose work has been noted in Best American Essays. Her memoir, Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, co-authored with Amy Andrews, won the 2014 Christopher Award for "literature that affirms the highest values of the human spirit." She is the associate editor of Mind & Spirit an online magazine about the intersection of faith and psychology. She writes daily devotions for Living Faith and was a long-time contributor to the Image blog Good Letters. Her book of daily meditations on the 2016 lectionary, Grace-Filled Days, is available from Loyola Press and Amazon. She is co-founder and curator of the new blog Sick Pilgrim, a space for fellow travelers, a rest stop for people who have Catholic minds or hearts or aesthetics or attractions and need companions for the journey.
Jessica Mesman Griffith

Latest posts by Jessica Mesman Griffith (see all)

  • alexandra

    Truly beautiful.

  • Jessica, one of Pema Chodron’s teachings is about not getting all tangled up with fear. She suggested “leaning into” what every scares us. What does it feel like, Easy in, breathe, ease out, exhale. When I was younger, I had horrible migraines, but even worse that the day-after-day clusters was the anticipation BEFORE the attack. Oh no! It’s coming! I’m afraid! And the tension from the headaches and other symptoms – auras, feeling cold, looking for just the right flannel blanket to drape over me face – really caused a great deal of angst.
    If I were to say – and when I have pain these days – ok, it’s happening. Well, what does this feel like. I recognize this twinge, this fear, this hollowness, the empty hope for relief, and I can rest there briefly without losing it.
    And now I can pull back… I survive and I’m not dead, and I can breathe, and regular breathing is very healthy. this does not evaporate pain, fear, anxiety, but it take away the sting of “the places that scare me.”
    Beautiful writing, Jessica. Mary Ellen

  • Terri

    “…swords remain—they have gone too deep to ever be extracted.” I could reflect on those words all week. I cried as I read your post, thank you for sharing and putting into words what my heart has felt. Somehow we learn to live with those swords and there does come a fierce strength from their presence. Grateful to have met you through this post, wishing you a peace filled week.

  • Stunning piece. I fear my own strength, too. Because it has often been punished, to be perfectly honest. Love this journey to be soft and tender even with the open wounds.

    • Fearing one’s own strength — me too. This is exactly it.

  • Gillian Marchenko

    Profound. Thank you.

  • YES! YES! YES! Thank you for this. In the same year, my son was diagnosed with cancer and almost died and I was betrayed by a friend. Over time, I have let myself and my wounds soften. I no longer fear THEM. I embrace them and use them as a foundation to choose growth. Being a survivor is powerful and scary. And mostly, we scare ourselves. Thank you for naming this.