‘Broken’ is one of those words that tends to conjure up undesirable images. If we are informed that something is broken, then our normal reaction is to assume that an item has been damaged or that a piece of machinery or equipment is malfunctioning in some way. Such a response is hardly surprising in view of the negativity associated with the word. But the word ‘broken’ sometimes appears within a perfectly un-negative context, such as the term ‘broken chord’ or arpeggio in musical theory where the reference is to a series of notes sounded one after the other rather than sounded simultaneously. There are many other examples where ‘broken’ does not necessarily imply damage.
However, general usage does tend to suggest the more negative option and if the broken object is something that we personally own then our response probably will be different than if another person owns the object. Our reaction will of course depend very much on circumstances and how the misfortune impacts on us. If the item belongs to us and is simply functional with little monetary value, then we might only feel temporarily inconvenienced that it is broken and decide to have the item repaired or perhaps replaced at a later date. On the other hand, if the item has great sentimental value, we are more likely to respond with sadness, regret, or even anger.
Unlike sentient creatures, inanimate objects are said not to experience pain or despair as a consequence of their broken condition and most broken items we gladly and dispassionately consign to the rubbish bin, often with some relief that the now useless object has ceased to clutter our living space. Why is it, therefore, that we often feel devastated when something which we are fond of ends up broken?
Part of the answer may lie in our remote past. Psychologists speak of racial memory and therefore it might be that we have retained something of the animistic worldview of our primeval forbears. Animism regards natural features such as trees, rocks and rivers as possessing consciousness in the way that humans do. On a more subliminal level, many of us develop a fond relationship with objects to which we have come to feel affection, and if a cherished possession were stolen from us, then we probably would have feelings of anger towards the culprit. On the other hand, if we accidentally dropped the item and it broke into a multitude of pieces then our response might be different. Unlike a stolen object, there exists little or no potential for recovery. The item as we know it has ceased to exist and in the twinkling of an eye has been reduced to rubbish. This sudden transformation often fills us with sadness.
Perhaps the way that objects can instantly be broken reminds us of our own mortality. It is the nature of existence that the creation of life is a relatively slower process than its termination. The material world seems engaged in a perpetual struggle to maintain its form because the law of entropy governs everything. Entropy, of course, is indeed very slow on a cosmic scale, but nonetheless the process is irreversible and it is a process that many humans prefer not to be reminded of. When something is suddenly broken, the impermanence of existence is brought into sharp focus. Anyone who has constructed a jigsaw will know how pleasurable it feels when the final piece is fitted into place.
Some will also acknowledge that a sense of sadness is often felt when the finished project is broken and put back in its box. Curiously, we tend not to consider the jigsaw broken prior to assembly, even though it might be in a thousand pieces. Is it because we feel a sense of purpose and anticipation on opening the box for the first time and seeing all the pieces ready for assembly? Once the objective has been achieved there is nothing left but to break it down and that leaves us with a sense of purposelessness and sadness. It is worth considering the oriental concept of wabi sabi, where no attempt is made to disguise or fully conceal damage at all because the damage is recognised as part of an item’s history and therefore is nothing to be ashamed of. On the other hand, we in the West do not like to be reminded of imperfection and the fact that most material items are easily broken.
However, it is not only material items we describe as broken; we speak also of being broken in spirit. Such a condition is horrifying for it robs us of our true potential and purpose for living, as confirmed by a quote from the Book of Job: ‘God has delivered me to the ungodly…I was at ease, but he has broken me asunder’. From a spiritual perspective this truly is the Dark Night of the Soul. To be broken is to lose possession of one’s sense of wholeness, or holiness, as some would put it. Clearly Job was convinced that his god had deserted him and left his spirit in fragments. The use of the word broken also appears in the Gospel of Luke where the writer states: ‘The Spirit of the Lord…has sent me to heal the broken-hearted’. Here the accent is on restoration. That which was broken can be made whole again.
Within a personal context, I have a poignant memory of a broken item, which had nothing to do with sentimental attachment. Many years ago, when my second eldest son was about ten years of age, he went on a trip to the seaside with a local boy scout troop. Each boy was permitted to take with him a pound coin to spend on the sort of things small boys tend to enjoy. On returning home at the end of the day I asked my son what he had bought. From inside his bag, he produced a small box and told me that he hadn’t bought anything for himself at all, but had gone into a souvenir shop where he had decided to buy a gift for his parents. When I opened the box, inside was a gold-painted horse with a missing leg. My son went on to explain that when he bought the horse, it only had three legs. The owner of the shop had told him that because the horse was broken, my son could have it for one penny less than the original price! With child-like innocence my son agreed, thinking he had been given a bargain.
I will never forget the cocktail of emotions I felt on hearing that. On one level I was grateful for my son’s selfless generosity and on another level, I recognised the object for the worthless piece of tat that it was. But what pained me the most, was the realisation that anyone could be so heartlessly opportunistic and unethical to take advantage of the goodwill and innocence of a small child. The little three-legged horse was given a space on the mantelpiece for a week or two, before it was discreetly removed and consigned to the rubbish bin.
Of all the things that can easily be broken perhaps the greatest is the trust we put in others. The world is full of individuals who test that trust to the utmost, which sadly is a pitiful comment on human nature. It seems that those who are broken at a profound level of their being have little or no conscience about breaking the trust and spirit of others. Is it any wonder we as humans have an aversion to that which is broken? It reminds us far too much of ourselves.