Re-Calibrating My Heart

“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” — Ted Hughes

Lately, I have been feeling a bit sheepish. Here’s why:

Most mornings, I stumble out of bed and, after a quick stop in the bathroom, head downstairs for coffee and a brief perusal of social media before getting ready to face the day. I’ve read numerous articles about the fact that getting on the computer, checking email and social media, first thing in the morning is the wrong thing to do if I want to be a productive and successful person who meets all my goals for the day. But this isn’t what has me feeling sheepish.

It’s the fact that I sit at my computer and cry.

One morning, I wept while watching a video of a little girl with a prosthetic leg joyfully receive the gift of a doll with a prosthetic leg “just like me”. Another day, tears leaked out while viewing the latest installment of Carpool Karaoke because…Les Miz! (Sorry, I’ve yet to fall completely under the “Hamilton” spell, but I’m sure it will happen!) I cried reading the letter from the young woman in the Stanford rape case; when I read a post about yet another pedestrian killed by a careless driver while crossing the street in a crosswalk with a “walk” sign. Happy, sad or moving for inexplicable reasons: I cry.

This is a little secret I’ve kept to myself for quite a while. I’m sharing it so that you will know that I do this, just like so many of you. Like so many others, I get caught up in the emotion of things far removed from me – the stories and experiences of people I will never meet – every day. And this is not a bad thing.

But it is a thing that concerns me. We expend a great deal of compassionate energy responding to social media these days. (And, yes, some people expend a lot of energy being trolls, but that is a whole different topic.) Whether we sit quietly and cry at our kitchen tables; whether we click “comment”, “like”, or “share”; whether we write an impassioned response that our friends quickly agree with – we are essentially engaged within a closed loop that we sometimes mistake for actually doing something.

Then we go about our days, feeling harassed and angry at other drivers, at the slow people in front of us at the checkout, at the coffee shop when someone doesn’t know before their turn what they want to order, for crying out loud! In the workplace, we complain about everyone else’s lousy work ethic or bad habit of bogarting the copy machine. We duck into doorways or restrooms to avoid that emotionally needy coworker (you know the one). We don’t engage with people whose political or religious opinions differ from ours, thereby making it easy to maintain strict boundaries between “US” and “THEM”. When faced with people who need our compassion – at the corner or in WalMart or as we drive through a particular neighborhood and suddenly think to lock our doors – all we feel is irritation, disgust, or fear.

I worry that one of the pitfalls of social media engagement is that, while it opens our lives up to a wider reach of people and stories, it also allows us to spend our compassionate energy without actually having to open our hearts and/or join our hands with others IRL. I worry that we prefer it this way, because we don’t get dirty or uncomfortable or risk vulnerability and rejection. We prefer it because it isn’t hard.

The truth is, our hearts are meant to be broken, which is not easy. Hearts broken open allow others to walk right in and find space to curl up and be safe. Hearts broken open let our love and energy to flow outward to touch real people with real needs. They aren’t meant to merely click a thumbs-up button and move on. Hearts broken open don’t press share and write, “I’m just going to leave this here.”

In his novel, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak says “Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.” With the exception of the sociopaths among us, we all feel the itch to make a positive difference. We all feel ourselves called to scratch that itch. And we all fear what might come leaking out. Still, our hearts are intended to leak in this way; we are meant to face our fear in order to add to the good of this world. I believe this with my whole broken-open heart.

And I worry that I am letting that good, compassionate leakage express itself in tears that fall on my keyboard and nowhere else. If, as Ted Hughes claimed, the only calibration that matters is how much heart we invest, I need to invest my heart in the world outside my kitchen, connected to me by something other than fiber optic cable or a wireless router. I think its time for a heartfelt re-calibration.

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Not Finite

How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you are always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds? Workers need ground to scrape and hoe, not the sky of unspecified desire. –Rumi

When we were in graduate school, my friend Cathann mentioned something in conversation that I’ll never forget – we don’t have a finite amount of love; therefore, giving love to one person does not mean we have less to give another. There is always more available.

I’ve not forgotten these words, though sometimes their truth sneaks up on me. It sneaks up on me when I’m not looking for new friends but they appear anyway. It catches me by surprise when I’ve been avoiding connecting with loved ones because “I’m too busy” but we somehow connect anyway – and I find that lightens, rather than adds to, my burdens. Unfortunately, this truth also catches up with me in moments of sadness and regret, when I realize I felt love that remained unexpressed.

I don’t know how anyone else experiences this, but for me, once I’ve loved someone I apparently carry love for that person inside – even if it is buried in the debris of broken promises or hurt feelings. Even if it was a love that I experienced in my childhood but has been left at the bottom of my heart, like a favorite teddy bear forgotten in a box in the attic. I suspect this is true for most of us, if the heartwarming stories we hear of people who have reconnected with past friends, lovers and lost family members are to be believed.

All that love just being hoarded somewhere in the over-stuffed storage-units of our hearts.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. A few weeks ago, I happened to see a comment on a Facebook feed, placed there by my ninth grade boyfriend. Now, I haven’t been connected with this man in so many years, I literally gave up trying to count them. Seeing his name, I felt a small rush of warmth and a sudden desire to reach out to him. I didn’t, though. (Honest admission: I did do a small amount of cyber-stalking, but it was just a few clicks on some internet links.) It left me wondering what stopped me – not from rekindling a relationship of some kind, but from simply saying, “Hello! I still think fondly of you from time to time.” The answer that comes back to me, in my most truthful moments, is that I didn’t want to be burdened with any messy-ness (what if he’s weird? what if he’s dangerous? what if he’s awesome and I don’t have time for another long-distance friend?) that could conceivably come from connecting.

And this week, I’ve been grieving the sudden death of my cousin, Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We spent a lot of time together as kids – he was a few years older than me and, exotically, lived on a farm. Tom was always kind and gentle and protective of me, even when he was teasing me for my “city” ways, or calling me Angie Palucci* – a nickname I hated from everyone else but didn’t mind from him. He’s the one who told me the truth about Santa Claus, because I was upset that the other kids were calling me a baby when their nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments went over my head. Tom’s the one whose crooked smile started with a downturning of the mouth before it lit up his face. Now that he’s gone, I feel the space he has been holding in my heart.

I’ve been regretting that I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch.  Wondering why I never took the turn toward the farm when I drove past on the nearby highway – I know I thought about it every time. I suspect it goes back to that idea of somehow being “burdened” – by people and their inevitable imperfections and needs? by love and its inevitable imperfections and needs?

Or is it the fear of finite inner resources? Fear of my own inevitable imperfections and needs?

I’ve said this before (and it won’t surprise anyone, especially those who know me), but I am a slow learner; I am someone who needs to relearn the same concepts over and over before they stick. Just thinking about that teddy bear in the attic is enough to remind me that I still feel love for it. All this time, I thought I was putting it away in order to make room to love something else, when what I was really doing was protecting myself. I didn’t want to see myself reflected in his button eyes as the limited, flawed person I am.

The reality, the truth I keep losing track of is this: My perfection is finite, love’s is not. There might not be room enough in my daily life to be connected to everyone in a perfect and non-needy way. In fact, I’m sure there isn’t – I will sometimes be the cause of hurt, sometimes let people down, sometimes be so focused on my own needs that I run right over you/your needs. But that’s about my human limitations, and not about love.

The sneaky truth, the one I keep losing sight of, is that love isn’t about me, created by me, or controlled by me; it has it’s own perfection that doesn’t flow from me. Unlike my time, my patience, and my impulse toward altruism, love is NOT finite – there is always more available.

Love itself describes its own perfection.
Be speechless and listen.

~ Rumi.

*(the name of a character on the Doris Day show that played in after-school reruns at the time)