“Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup be full may it be again. Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men. There is a road, no simple highway. Between the dawn and the dark of night, and if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.” The Grateful Dead
The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has a one-of-a-kind exhibit that offers a larger than life model of the heart. It’s one of my favorite things at the museum – it invites you to walk through the whole heart, experiencing the inner workings of how blood flows. There are narrow steps that lead you up and down and all around through atriums and ventricles to playfully act out how blood is oxygenated and pumped in and out of the heart to the rest of the body. “The Giant Heart” is one of the features in the vascular exhibit, which is its own grand gallery in the museum. It’s like a romper room of real deal cardio-activities. You can crawl through arteries, or see how blocked arteries do, in fact, inhibit passage because they are filled with various amounts of plaque. It’s quite sobering. You can also step on a giant scale attached to a giant flask that fills with red liquid to display, based on weight, how much blood is coursing through your veins. It’s all so mesmerizing. Blood is a remarkable thing. I’ve stood on that scale more than a few times over the years and watched the flask fill up, topping off at about four and a half liters or so; and I’ve realized I have little clue about what is really going on inside me at any given moment.
There’s a whole metropolis and countryside underneath my skin’s surface. All sorts of things are moving and grooving along highways, byways and rural roads; and I’m hardly aware of it. My heart is always at work, ensuring vitality from my head to my toes. It occurs involuntarily. It has to. It’s too important for me to be consciously in charge of it. I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. There are times when I do (and need to) become conscious of my heart’s activity. During physical and/or situational stressors, my heart can start racing or pounding the pavement at an unsustainable or arrhythmic pace. I need to voluntarily respond with mindful repose (and possible cardiac consultation) to resume cruise control. My body’s vascular system has miraculous ways of not only clueing me in to step up and take action, but also calming me down to reconsider how to best continue the journey. Deep breaths are the first steps to refuel my heart with fresh perspective to carry on. My lungs assist my heart to do this; however, there are moments when I must metaphorically reach for the oxygen mask dangling in front of me to restore body and soul homeostasis. It’s like there’s this cardio-community inside me (and around me) that is always cheering me on, whether I’m aware of it or not. “Take heart” is more than a cliché to me. It implies that there is a force inside me (around me) that keeps me going, despite how stuck or shut down I feel. Am I willing to accept this reality? How consciously connected I am with this life force inside me (surrounding me) directly influences how intentionally grateful I am to be alive and to cheer others on to love their life as well. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament summed it up similarly in this way:
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
A professor in grad school once challenged my class to consider why women seem most attuned and willing to acknowledge heart issues. We speculated about a mother’s need to provide nurturing support for her children. “Think more primitively”, he said. We discussed aspects of birth, then pregnancy and still he shook his head, noting not all women experience such things. He provocatively prompted us to consider every woman’s forced relationship with herself every month. Ironically, a man helped me understand how menstruation is a primitive process that involuntarily volunteers me to attentively and compassionately relate to life. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally, as a woman, I have to consciously contend with waiting, timing, discomfort, catharsis, clean-up and resolution. I don’t mean to be crass in discussing this, but to underscore how life is constantly proving itself to be something that is capable of enduring, overcoming and thriving throughout the journey. Men are not excluded from connecting to life with compassionate notions – although this may be one of the notable reasons why God provided Adam a “suitable helpmate” in designing Eve (Genesis 2:18). Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, a bone closest to the heart (Genesis 2:21). There is a heart-to-heart connection among all of us. If we go deep enough, we will find it. Our internal and external functions do not always run smoothly and, at times, are more dysfunctional than we’d like to admit or deal with. We need help. I recently worked with a birth client who lost a large amount of blood during delivery that caused her blood pressure and platelets to drop to dangerous levels. She received a transfusion of one and a half pints of blood, which help a bit; but soon after that intervention, another transfusion was required to ensure healthy equilibrium. She received an additional two pints, which significantly stabilized her status. The Red Cross diligently facilitates blood drives to ready reserves for just such purposes. Hmmm, I know another cross that provided a much needed soul transfusion to ensure that we could keep living and loving.
For eons, the symbolic relevance of the heart has signified an emotional and/or spiritual reality that exists inside us and between us. The true essence of a person has often been believed to dwell in a person’s heart. When renown Scottish medical missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, died in 1873 in Africa, the African nationals buried his heart there before sending his body back to Britain for formal burial. Dr. Livingstone had dedicated his life to serve the African people. They were keenly aware of how much he loved them, so they wanted to keep his heart near them. This may seem gruesome, but it is a tangible tale of how we experience life, specifically love. Whether we will it or not, our hearts are designed to perpetuate life and even love. Our hearts are as scientific as they are sacred. They are part of an essential network, inside and out, that motivates us onward to keep going and even enjoy the ride. And we do not trek this journey alone. I find comfort in being part of this collective effort.
- The Bloodmobile by They Might Be Giants (video featured at the Franklin Institute)
- Ripple by The Grateful Dead
- Visit the Franklin Institute Science Museum
- Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
- Lost Women of the Bible by Carolyn Custis-James
- How to donate blood
- History of Dr. David Livingstone