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Let the Heart Break Open
20 November 2015

Let the Heart Break Open
20 November 2015

Let the Heart Break Open

I recently re-listened to an episode of On Being that aired last year sometime. Christa Tippett mentioned this poem by Mary Oliver, which feels relevant and timely, so I've transcribed it here. Bits of that podcast have stayed with me over the past several days, as the world reels with the shock of the attacks in Paris. This is how my mind has turned it over, both the podcast and the events:

Violence is what arises out of suffering, when we don't know what else to do with our suffering. Violence like the horror visited upon Paris recently, but also the smaller acts of violence we enact upon ourselves and each other. In both cases, we can direct the power of suffering toward new life.

People emerge all the time out of terrible personal tragedy and heartbreak to find that their hearts have grown larger and more compassionate. They have developed a greater capacity to take in others’ sorrows and joys, not in spite of their loss but because of it.

Suffering breaks our hearts but there's the brittle heart that breaks apart into shards, which can act as shrapnel. Or there's the supple heart, which breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for love in all its forms. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

What can I do to make my tight heart more supple? That's the question I ask myself. If I "exercise" my heart to make it more supple, will my heart break open into largeness, instead of a thousand sharp bits that pierce flesh and deepen pain?

Christa Tippett's directive? "Take it in, take it all in!"

I take this to mean my heart is stretched every time I’m able to take in life’s daily pains without numbing myself: a troublesome family relationship, unkindness at home or work, feelings of personal failing or inadequacy. I can also "stretch" my heart by taking in life’s little joys: a kindness from a stranger, my sweet, elderly dog gently placing her chin in my lap, the "I love yous" given freely by my husband and my sons. Taking all of it in—the good and the bad alike—is a form of exercise that can transform my "clenched fist of a heart into an open hand"—a phrase I remember clearly from the podcast.

Does a nation have a heart that can become supple enough to respond to collective suffering without violence? Not so sure. But since I don’t know for sure I’m going to try hard NOT to yield to cynicism. I prefer to hope.

Lead

by Mary Oliver

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.



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