Give Me a Break

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 4, 2024

Only once has my heart been broken – but don’t ask me for details – not here, anyway – and in any case, it’s only a metaphor. The human heart is a very strong organ. When it fails, the cause is rarely disappointed love. Ask any cardiologist.

Bones are another matter. They can withstand any amount of emotional stress. But it takes only a trivial object, like a misplaced banana peel, to be responsible for extensive damage.

Then there are broken promises – which can range all the way from failure to show up for a date to violation of a treaty. Historically, one of the most notorious was the one which brought Britain into the First World War in 1914. The British cared little about the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in far-off Sarajevo. But when this led to war between Germany and France, there was more cause for concern. True, those two countries had been at war as recently as 1870, without involving Britain, even though the Channel separating her from France is only 20 miles wide. 

But this time, something else was involved – the supposedly sovereign state of Belgium – and the little matter of a Treaty, dating from 1839 and signed by all the major powers of Europe, guaranteeing Belgian independence and neutrality. This had been respected in the 1870 conflict. But, in the years leading up to 1914, the Germans had made careful plans for any future war with France, which took no account of that promise. And, sure enough, when war broke out in 1914, German troops were soon marching through Belgium, whose own army was hardly a match for them.

The effect which this had upon public opinion in Britain was momentous. The Press was soon regaling its readers with stories of “Gallant Little Belgium” suffering terribly from the German invasion. Punch Magazine, famous for its political cartoons, came out with one showing a little Belgian boy defending a gate marked “NO THOROUGHFARE” against a big German bully. There were accounts of atrocities inflicted by the foreign horde – not the least of which was the intentional burning of a cultural treasure – the University Library of Louvain.

Posters appearing all over Britain featured an actual reproduction of the violated Treaty. War was declared almost immediately, and volunteers were soon crowding the recruiting stations. All because of what the blustering German Chancellor infamously dismissed as “A Scrap of Paper.”

But even in peacetime, a broken window can have great significance. In academic theory, there is an idea that when broken windows begin to appear in a neighborhood, it can be a first sign of Urban Decay.

In ordinary experience, it is broken human relationships that feature most prominently. And here, the ultimate and supposedly permanent fracture is known as divorce. Like marriages, divorces vary in different societies. Some cultures make it difficult, sometimes requiring a lengthy cooling-off period of a year or more before the separation can become legally final. In others, it can be relatively quick and easy. Traditional Islam recognizes any divorce after the husband has said three times “I Divorce Thee!” This may now be pronounced at a distance, by telephone or computer. The wife has no such privilege.

In common language, “lucky break” can mean an unexpected piece of good fortune. But what is Luck? Is it pure chance – or are any situations involving chance really “pure”? Why do some people seem to be luckier than others? Is it all a matter of mathematical probability? Insurance companies are built on that assumption. They have employees called Actuaries whose whole profession involves the assessment of risk. But that’s what we all do, to some extent, in our daily lives, particularly while driving.

In case you were wondering, the words “break” and “brake” are not closely related, although a brake is obviously what breaks the speed of a turning wheel.

And of course, we have the word “breakfast,” with its meaningful testament to the fasting we do every night, that period of doing without food typically the longest such food-free span in our normal 24-hour cycle. 

Finally, let’s not forget the traditional good luck wish to a stage performer, “Break a Leg!” – based on the superstition that this will deceive whatever evil spirits may be listening in. As we all know from reading spy novels, the modern equivalent of listening in is electronic eavesdropping, which every good “agent” must guard against. In this case, a “broken” agent is one by some means induced to defect. Shades of Benedict Arnold!  


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