Tag Archives: heart

Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 1)

“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.

 

References:

  1. The Bloodmobile by They Might Be Giants (video featured at the Franklin Institute)
  2. Ripple by The Grateful Dead
  3. Visit the Franklin Institute Science Museum
  4. Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
  5. Lost Women of the Bible by Carolyn Custis-James
  6. How to donate blood
  7. History of Dr. David Livingstone

Acorns of Hope

Jesus Meets Zachaeus

“Redwoods reach their incredible height because they grow very close to each other. Redwoods are always surrounded by other redwoods! Because the 100 plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other for their vital nutrients. Only redwoods have the strength to support other redwoods. The root systems of redwoods are very shallow. The roots grow no deeper than about ten feet and yet they support a tree that is the height of a football field. It seems impossible but in reality, the roots of the redwood tree graft and interlock with the systems of the trees surrounding it, creating a vast interlocking root platform. This prevents the toppling of even the tallest and most massive trees when soil layers become fully saturated and soggy during prolonged flooding. Baby redwoods actually sprout from the roots of the parent tree. This is a very common sight in a redwood forest. The baby tree gets its nutrients from the parent tree until its root system has spread and intertwined with the root systems of the trees surrounding it.”  Secrets From Redwoods About Creating Powerful Teams

I walked with my client from the waiting room into the therapy room to start our weekly session. He lay down on the sofa and stretched out on his back. He folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the ceiling in quiet reflection. I sat in a chair across from him.

I asked, “How’s it going?”

“Not good”, he replied.

“What happened?” I inquired.

“My heart hurts”, he answered matter of factly, still staring at the ceiling.

“What do you mean?” I asked, starting to feel like Anna Freud. I should mention that this psycho-analytic moment was occurring with a five year old boy. I had been working with him since he was three. He was referred to me for therapy to help resolve behavioral and emotional difficulties. He was separated, around age three, from his parents due to their difficulties of providing him a safe and supportive home. He had experienced a high level of distress in his few years of life; and though he was in a nurturing foster/adoptive home, he still struggled to make sense of why his birth parents didn’t/couldn’t love him in healthy ways. During my work with him, he had made incredible progress in verbalizing his thoughts and feelings rather than acting them out. This conversation was proof of that progress.

He clarified his statement. “My heart is broke.”

“Broke?” I questioned.

“Yep, broke.” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “You’ve come to the right place because I can help broken hearts feel better.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t fix it. It’s broken forever.” He emphasized.

“Forever? Wow, that’s a long time.” I said. “ Are you sure I can’t help?” I added.

“No one can help. It’s too broken.” he said.

This may all seem a bit melodramatic; but any five year old is a pro at seeing things in all or nothing terms. Especially when the majority of those formative years were fraught with chaos and discord, it can seem impossible to understand what wholeness is.

So being a good art therapist, I asked him to draw a picture of his heart to show me how it was broken. He drew an outline of a heart, one line connected to form the shape. This is information to me that there is a sense of wholeness inside him; we just needed to work together to highlight it more consciously. He scribbled inside the interior of the outline for a while, emoting his energy in a seemingly controlled manner. I was proud of him at how he was expressing himself. Then suddenly he became agitated and started ripping the picture up into small pieces and tossing them hap-hazzardly on the floor.

“Oh my”, I thought.

“See!” he exclaimed, “It’s all broken. It can’t be fixed!”

We both stared at the pieces of paper on the floor. I asked him what he wanted to do with them and he said he didn’t know. He stood in the midst of the torn pieces (the pieces of his broken heart), as they lay on the floor. He started crying and was visibly very upset. I asked him if he wanted his “mom” (foster mom) to join us in the room to help figure things out. He nodded. She joined us and noticed the pieces of paper on the floor. She asked what happened, in a tone that was quite consoling. He explained the situation; then immediately after his report, he scrambled under the desk in the room and hid. He said nothing, but reached his arm out and grabbed a few of the pieces nearby the desk. His foster mom gave me a concerned glance and I responded with a reassuring smile. I gently told my client to come out when he was ready and assured him that his mom and I would wait. He grabbed a few more pieces and pulled them into his hiding place. After a few moments, he poked his head out from underneath the desk and asked for a pen. His mom handed him a marker and he retreated back under the desk. After a few more moments, he emerged and handed his mom one of the pieces and stared at her. She responded to his gesture by looking him in the eyes and saying, “I love you, too”. He had written “I love you” on the piece of paper. She held the little note in her hand and then held him in her lap and he was visibly peaceful and calm.

I looked at the two of them. At first glance, I saw her hold the torn scrap and heard her re-read it aloud a few times. I watched the boy, whose life felt so broken, smile and rest his head against her. I then thought about how the shred of paper was like a seed. Yes, his heart was experiencing fractured reality and he was desperately trying to make sense of his world, his own worth; and yet, in that brokenness, there was wholeness in the most profound way. The words he wrote on that torn piece of paper (his broken piece of heart) define a relationship.

We are designed for relationships because our Designer fashioned us after “their” likeness (Genesis 1:26). Though God also instructed Moses to teach that “The Lord our God is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). That Oneness is not singular exclusivity. Rather, God is to be understood as a united whole. We possess that same wholeness because of God’s design, God’s identity in us. Our awareness of feeling broken suggests that we are aware that something is, indeed, wrong. Even five year olds can understand that. However, regardless of what feels broken (and is broken), we still possess the imprint of that wholeness on every broken piece. The reality of community lives in a single seed and can be planted to reveal it. Such seedling is dependent, in kind, on other seeds that have been planted to form an intertwined network of community – a crop of interdependent relationships. Those three words my client wrote on that piece of paper embodied a holistic declaration of his attempt to connect with something/someone as much as it symbolized the reflection of what God declares to all of us. We are created for community because we were made by community.

I love holding a newborn. I often refer to them as “acorns of hope”. They possess the reality of what God intended. They represent our humanity so humbly. They need the nurturance of a social system to survive and thrive – and I think we need them to remind us that we all began in such form. Life requires times of reforming and transforming our awareness to reconnect to this original purpose. It’s hard, but we have a lifetime to figure it all out. And we can figure it out together. We have to or we truly fall apart and miss out on experiencing what it is to be truly human.

References:

  1. Zacchaeus Meets Jesus; drawing by Jamie Wasson 1983 (age 6)
  2. Secrets From Redwoods About Creating Powerful Teams: Dr. Karen Wolfe
  3. Art Psycho-therapy by Harriet Wadeson
  1. Life of the Beloved; Henri Nouwen
  1. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life by Catherine Lacugna

My Beautiful Vision

joy

“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The Little Prince

Once upon a time in my early thirties, I visited the Camden Aquarium in New Jersey with my then three year old nephew. We stood in front of the expansive glass walled aquarium that housed and showcased numerous sea creatures. Watching them swim and swirl before my eyes, I pressed my hands and forehead against the glass to get as close as I could to look. So did my nephew. And soon I realized other children stood in solidarity with me in the same pose to see the majesty of what swam on the other side of the aquarium window. I also soon realized that I was the only grown up in this line up of awe struck admirers. I glanced over my shoulder and saw adults a few yards away milling around, presumably parents and/or caregivers of the children standing next to me. The adults kept their distance while keeping a close eye on their kids, who unabashedly smushed their faces against aquarium glass. I instantly felt a foolish blush, as I considered what a goofball I looked like, the only adult with such obvious wide eyed wonderment amongst giggling youngsters. So I stepped back. Though as soon as I did, my feeling of foolishness shifted to sadness. Truth be told, I’m legally blind.  Thus, I often position myself in such apparent poses to see things. Because I want to see – I really want to see. And yet, even in my efforts to ‘see’ something as it is, my observations are still limited to blurry glimpses, undefined detail and even misinterpretations. However, such shrouded encounters seem to offer a more enlightened perspective of what, how and why imagination is so essential to any of us really ‘seeing’ anything.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphatically proclaimed that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must have faith like a child and that anyone who hurts a child is better off sleeping with the fishes (Luke 18:16, Matthew 18:3, Matthew 18:6). What do children possess that we as adults must not lose in our maturation process? How does being childlike help us understand God? Why are children always asking why?! I think the answers to these questions are less about infantilizing ourselves by discussing the value of vulnerability or the importance of remaining innocent and even being naive. I think Jesus is referencing imagination as an essential method to truly ‘seeing’ ourselves the way God sees us and, more significantly, seeing God as God really is. At the very least, imagination seems to be about trying to see beyond what is right in front of us. According to the dictionary, the concept of imagination is “the ability to form new images and ideas that are not perceived through sight, hearing, etc.”. In other words, imagination is that sixth sense of making sense of things. According to Jesus, imagination is not about pretending. It is about expanding our ability to perceive {to see} the big picture. Jesus’ descriptions of God’s kingdom throughout the Gospels invite us to look past the dust and rust of what surrounds us and be part of transforming ourselves into something divinely everlasting. This process requires imagination. Imagination requires risk in creating and re-creating, considering and reconsidering – looking at something in a new way. In practical Christian terms, this is referred to as the redemption process.

If you have ever spent more than ten minutes with a child, you may have observed their capacity to not simply tell a story but accentuating aspects of a story to create quite an interesting tale.  As an art therapist who has worked with children for over twelve years, I have no short list of such observations. Yet at times as an adult, I confess I respond to their ‘wild imaginations’ with patronizing aloofness – as if fantasy doesn’t play any role in developing a healthy sense of self and society. While pop psychology has veered away from any strict ‘study of the soul’ to pursue a more strategic neuro-scientific research approach, the practice of imagination cannot occur without body and soul working together. This cohesive relationship is reflected in the most primitive sense when a baby is born and placed on their mother’s breast. The baby can smell, taste, see, hear and feel their mother. Amidst these physical sensations begins the bonding process. Attachment theory experts suggest that within that embrace, imagination ignites for both mother and baby. The mother imagines whether or not she can be a ‘good enough’ mother. The baby imagines whether or not this source of care outside the womb is trustworthy. In this imaginative reciprocity, time seems to be a significant factor in not only determining the reality of reliability but also what makes such bond worth developing beyond childhood. In our spiritual development or redemptive process, imagination can help us maintain or even deepen the bliss we experienced when we were born again.

When God created mankind, let alone the whole world, imagination seemed to be both the cause of creation as well as the effect. In the book The Creators, the reality of mankind being made in God’s image is extensively reviewed. The creative genius of God is that He made us creative. God imagined a world, a relationship with mankind, that could be wildly experienced while always being good, never anything less than good. After the Fall of mankind, our imagination was altered to look away rather than stand in awe of God, fear rather than hope and deny rather than believe. But God never stopped imagining something good. Jesus, being both creative God and creative man, redeemed the power of imagination to be used for good and not for evil. Who would have imagined that being born in a barn, washing feet, dying and being buried in a stranger’s grave would be sequential elements in revealing the best idea ever imagined – resurrection. Jesus prepared his disciples ahead of time that such imaginative means to an end was coming But only after the fact did his disciples and followers begin to grasp the epic meaning. Some ideas are just too mind blowing to visualize all at once. They take time to sink in. Jesus’ follower Mary stood outside an empty tomb, overcome with grief not only because her beloved teacher was dead but now his body was missing. Did she ever imagine the alternative? Standing by his gravesite, she heard him say her name, turned and saw him. Then, she fully embraced the idea and ran to tell others. Wheels of re-imagining the world started spinning a new revolution. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and history ever since seem to be the unfolding revelation of God inspiring us to see everything with a new pair of glasses. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us to do so. God’s Spirit in us, with us, is our lens by which we can truly make sense of what we see – what God sees.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared. But by His Spirit, he has revealed His plans to those who love Him” (1 Corinthians. 2:9)

Paul was reiterating encouragement from the prophet Isaiah, written and recorded in the Old Testament (Isaiah 64:4). Overtime, imagination bridges the gap between what is seen and unseen. Time, as does redemption, offer us the opportunity to engage with the reality of God’s idea being realized.  Like a craftsman uses blueprints to construct an object, the Holy Spirit uses revelation as evidence of what was imagined. Are we eager to see what the Lord is building? Are we willing to be part of that construction? The thing about children is that you do not have to press them to imagine. They do it so naturally, maybe supernaturally. There is an instinctual sense of non-pretense when it comes to their ideas about things. They also are uninhibited about wrangling you into figuring it out with them. They ask why. A relationship is established, maybe even expected in order to create meaning.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that love is the most important mechanism by which we live out our imaginative efforts of making sense of things (1 Corinthians 13:13). Loving God is the first step in the pursuit of seeing. Paul noted that at this time “we see through a glass darkly” but he reassured that “in time, we will fully see” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our ability to imagine becomes an essential part of our life span and redemptive process. The power of imagination children possess seems to be what Jesus prompts us to never lose as we become adults. The practice and protection of imagination become a spiritual discipline. As we mature, it may be useful for us to become more sophisticated in articulating what we are trying to imagine; but what is more advantageous is that we increase our care in creating something worthy of being called ‘a reflection of our Creator’s reality’. May I not be ashamed to press my face against the proverbial glass to see as much as I can. And what I cannot see, may I be inspired to take part in the creative process of revealing a new creation – in me and around me.

 

References:

  1. Joy: pastel painting by Jamie Wasson 2003
  2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  3. Definition of “Imagination” – Google word search
  4. The Creators by Daniel Boorstin
  5. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn by Penny Simkin
  6. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Comprehensive, Developmental Approach to Assessment and Intervention by Stanley Greenspan
  7. Diary of A Baby; by Daniel Stern
  8. Childhood and Society; by Erik Erikson