It hurts for our hearts to open. Like when the blood has been cut off from a limb and begins to flow back in, it pricks and tingles, the intensity worsening as the oxygen-rich blood rushes in to feed the cells and nerves. The cells and nerves scream their discomfort, as they are flooded with nourishment and new awareness blooms.
A dear family friend who is 85-years old had been living alone in cold temperatures in his home this winter, his pipes frozen, when he became very ill and unable to get out of bed. He is an amazing artist and a sweet and sensitive soul afflicted with congestive heart disease and diabetes. Although he was successful as a cartoonist in earlier years, the life of an artist has ups and downs, and he has struggled in the last segment of his life. Like many dedicated artists, he has learned to do without. He has put down his head and continues onward.
Don’t we all know this? Remember the story of the frog in the pot of heating water, and as it gets hotter and hotter the frog does not jump out? Or the person in the bad marriage who tolerates it until one day he meets that shining new person and the veils are lifted – the recognition that I’m not happy; I need to address this. We do this in many difficult situations, bad relationships, bad jobs, bad situations, learning to put up rather than get out – sometimes because there is no way out. We make do, tolerate, and ‘suck it up,’ without realizing how much we are suffering. It is a learned paralysis and a survival strategy.
It isn’t that my friend has no one. He has friends and family members including a family member who helps him as she is able and a good friend who adores him and looks out for him. But sometimes we get caught in our own lives and forget how much another needs us, and taking care of and providing for an independent and aging relative is too much for any one person living a full and complex life of his or her own. And sometimes in our stubbornness and old ways of being, we don’t let others help us as much as we should. Perhaps nobody knew he was sick in bed and unable to get up. I do not know all the details.
My friend was a safe, sensitive and special person for me as a child. He was my father’s best friend, and I have known him since birth. My memories of knowing him are filled with delight.
A week before he was taken to the hospital, I was pulled over for speeding. I was driving 32 miles an hour.
My husband who nearly died six weeks ago and I had gotten up early to take the ferry to Bellingham to see a pulmonary specialist. We were ½ way through an 11-hour day. We were hungry and had just left the Doctor’s office and were driving slowly through Bellingham looking for something to eat. I had never driven in Bellingham before and was unfamiliar with the city. Suddenly I saw flashing lights behind me: a motorcycle cop. Could he be pulling me over? What had I done? Shocked, I pulled into a nearby parking lot. The officer came to my window and asked for my paperwork. Mike was sitting next to me – frail and obviously on oxygen – with the oxygen tube coming out of his nose. The officer told me that I had been driving 32 miles an hour in a school zone. I explained that I wasn’t from the area, and we had just left the medical center. He ignored me, took my paperwork, and came back with a $271 ticket. I was unnerved and shaking. Not because I was pulled over or had made a mistake, but because I had just been confronted by a man who was completely armored, his heart inaccessible. He had no interest in our stories, our situation, or our struggles. We were not humans to him with real lives. We were not worthy of empathy but were people to trap, to use. Public safety was not the issue, but revenue. I hope never to return to Bellingham. They got our $271 but soiled their city. In their shortsightedness, they will lose future revenue from us, money spent on lunches, dinners, and gas.
Historically I have been largely focused on both self-expansion and survival. I learned to make do with little, as did my ancestors. My mother’s mother, Ida, born in 1910 lived during the era of the great depression. She was a tough woman with a sharp tongue. Her mother was sick and in the hospital frequently throughout her childhood. Ida’s mother died early – when Ida was eight years old I believe, leaving her to cook meals and take care of the family from a very young age. Ida knew how to save money, and her daughter Paula, my mother, was a great penny pincher as well. I also learned to focus on survival and be careful with money – an important skill for one following her bliss on a non-commercial path. And yet, this attitude kept me from truly knowing myself as part of a community of beings connected through the heart with love.
We live in a society without enough heart. We live embedded in systems that deaden us to the feelings and plight of others. We learn how not to feel. Sometimes we have to. Living in New York City, I walked by homeless people sitting on subway grates to keep warm in the cold winter. I had no way to help the multitudes; I was barely making ends meet myself back then. How do you help when the problem is too big and complex for one person? How do we awaken our hearts from the dormant to full-blooded life? How do we transform from chrysalis to butterfly?
Within the protected space of the chrysalis, the nascent butterfly waits. When it breaks through the brittle shell and greets the world, its wings are tiny and crumpled. The butterfly pumps its body’s fluid into its wings; the fluid pushes through the tiny tubes, opening each glowing and colored panel that composes its wings. Do the butterfly’s wings feel that same pain as the cut-off limb when the blood rushes back in? Does the butterfly feel the pulse of life moving through the tubes and expanding the undeveloped and un-manifest into thin and delicate life capable of flight?
The blood is rushing back into the withered limb of my heart; I am newly aware. I hurt.
The guilt I feel over my aging friend is enormous, gripping me and pulling me down into dark, turbulent waters: the realization that who I was allowed me to not fully recognize what was happening. It isn’t that I’m not sensitive – I am, or that I haven’t reached out and visited him or bought some of his art – I have. It is that I didn’t see how much I live in a place that has been ruled by survival. It is that I didn’t recognize his inability to help himself or recognize that I could have helped more and that he needed and needs the support, help and love of others.
I believe that my friend didn’t get the help he needed because he didn’t want to ask and be a burden others. I imagine he thought that if he could continue to persevere, he would be able to survive. He had lived a life of conservation and making do with little.
The temperature below freezing outside, the pipes frozen in your home, no running water, were you struggling to stay warm and breathe? Your heart at 20% capacity. The diuretic pulling the water flooding your lungs and straining your kidneys – needing to pee every few hours. Could you even sleep? The sores that developed on your legs so you could not walk. Trapped in bed and unable to get up. How do you survive when you are sick, 85-years old, and have no running water?
He ended up in the emergency room and then the hospital. He is in a nursing home but is about to start hospice care. I had hoped he would recover and return to his simple and beautiful life. I had hoped he could continue to gift the world with his vision. I wish I had helped more. He deserved better.
He is a person I love. Yet I missed his dilemma. I knew he didn’t have much, but I didn’t see how he was struggling, how hard it is to be 85 and in ill health, without resources and with no way to get them other than by asking for help.
I know that we each have a responsibility to our lives. That is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about how we close our eyes and hearts to those who cannot take care of themselves – not those who will not.
Last time I talked to him just a few weeks before his hospitalization, he told me he had lost ten friends this past year. He sounded fragile and lonely and yet he chuckled as we talked. I imagine he was cold during our call.
I am so sorry. I didn’t know. I come from a history where we don’t reach out to take care or receive. So do you. It is cold, and you were suffering – starting to die actually. What does my life mean if I don’t reach out to those I love? What does it mean if I don’t help? Not much. I do not want to be like that police officer who cannot or chooses not to feel.
I imagine how you must have felt and your questions – where is god when I am suffering so? Why have I been forsaken?
I have felt forsaken many times in my life – as if god had left me alone to fend for myself. Yes, there were lessons and learning to be gained from those times, and yet, the simple act of caring, not just letting others know, but getting involved, helps all of us. Having someone hold our hand helps us feel safe and loved.
The blood begins to flow down the arm awakening the flesh. The wings begin to expand and show their brilliance. Flight becomes possible.
That officer, perhaps someday he will feel that specific pain as the blood rushes back into all the parts of him that are dormant or dead. What does it mean to be a man developed only enough to be a cog in a corrupt wheel: a system that values the wrong thing? Is the system hurting him, or did he simply find the place into which he best fits?
Have we lost our senses? Is this focus on survival and making a buck more important than creating a society with a heart?
Had I been more trusting of life; had I been raised in a family and culture that better understood the power of generosity in changing our world; had I been more able to create a good income earlier in my life, perhaps it could have gone differently. Had you been able to let me know of your need more directly, had we lived in a world where people could see and value your sensitivity and quiet life of meditation, your sweetness, the gift of your art, perhaps you wouldn’t have suffered so.
Mixed in with my regret is a deep gratitude for you. Your presence has enriched my life. I am honored to have known you.
We have the power to create our lives and collectively our world. We forgot about you, and you almost died, and most likely will die before long – the last years of your life truncated and crunched in. That hurts me, and once we all can feel, it hurts us all.
I don’t believe that particular cop was looking out for anybody’s best interest. Does he struggle to not feel? Is not feeling easy for him?
What does this mean? It means many of our systems support our closed-hearted positions. Instead of protecting our citizens, our local governments and businesses sometimes prey on us. They reinforce our disconnection. We teach people to stay disconnected and closed hearted.
Why do we allow this to continue?
The blood is flowing through my veins, rushing into the areas closed off and dead. It is all tingling and pain now but coming alive. I am glad for the blood, glad for the opening of the heart. I am gladder to feel the pain that is real, then not feel and be part dead.
Perhaps someday rich red blood will flow into all our limbs, our wings will expand and reach outward and in our enlightenment we will hold each other with love.