On Healing 1/17/2005: Openhearted now, but not always

“Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
– The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


King might have been proud if he could see our response to the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia. He would see a nation and much of the world united in compassion to help the victims of what has been called the worst natural disaster of our times.

Most of us don’t care about their politics or skin color. No one even asked if they were Muslim extremists. We just care about life, death, and human suffering. The outpouring has been wonderful. Not surprising, but wonderful.

Many behavioral scientists would argue that empathy is part of our hardwiring and can be seen in young children who feel great pain when another child suffers. We also know that as we mature, empathy can lead to compassion and altruistic love. Pure altruism not only sustains a culture, it is what makes marriages thrive.

Yet this generosity of spirit is often triggered by vulnerability. Many people feel an expansive sensation in their chest when they see someone cry. And when we see the suffering of innocent people in Southeast Asia, it brings out the best in us. Sometimes.

Notice we didn’t react with such compassion when we heard about the massacre in Sudan or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Our hearts don’t open as much when we hear about the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens who have been murdered in the war.

We care for the victim if it’s an act of God. But for an act of man, we sometimes respond with the emotions of a closed heart – anger, indignation or indifference.

This stuff is natural. When someone from our tribe is attacked, our instinct is to close our hearts and find the villain.

But there’s a human price we pay. The only way we can pursue an enemy is with our hearts closed. Mistrust and aggression may be necessary, but they are emotionally and spiritually exhausting. And if we live too long with our hearts closed, we become spiritually malnourished. We feel less joy and lose our faith in our fellow humans.

Can our hearts stay open? In the weeks and months ahead, it’s very likely that we will find people to blame for the continued suffering of the tsunami victims. No doubt there will be corrupt politicians and middlemen as well as criminals who prevent the tsunami victims from getting the assistance they so desperately need. And we will react with anger.

It’s human nature to seek justice, and we can’t turn a blind eye on exploitation and cruelty. But I would hope our pursuit of compassion can be at least as persistent as our search for enemies of justice.

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo said: “The pupil dilates at night as though searching for day. And in misfortune, the heart dilates as though looking for God.”

We know what it feels like when the heart is dilated. It happens when we see the face of a child or greet someone we love. We feel it when the earth cracks open, and lives are lost. We get a glimpse of what the world could be and maybe rediscover the essence of what makes us human.

But a cardiologist once reminded me that the biological heart must open and close for survival. And so must the metaphorical heart. When it is closed, we must be ready to attack and defend our species. But the longer it stays open, the greater our chance of finally realizing Martin Luther King’s dream.

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