Keep Your Heart Open

NOTE: I wrote this blog post before the death of George Floyd and the resulting heightened awareness of the racial inequalities in our society. While the words of this blog speak specifically to the experience of the pandemic, I encourage you to think about how you are attending to your heart around all of it. 

Heart, spring heart on canvas. Open heart. Knife art.

COVID-19 has us asking how can we maintain an open hearted presence in a world so full of pain?

Grace here. How do you respond when your world, the world in fact, is filled with suffering? While one could argue that the world is always full of suffering and people who are suffering (I would!), the CoronaVirus pandemic has brought that truth to our own doors and our own minds. How have you responded? To what have you allowed yourself to be present to and how has your system handled it?


I have had a variety of conversations with clients and students about this over the last few months and I think it’s a really important thing for us all to be thinking about. How do we keep our hearts open while simultaneously protecting our hearts? Where is that fine line and how do we find it?


By no means do I have all the answers but it is something I think about a lot in my own life and in my professional life. Here are my thoughts.


It is easy to fall either into the trap of denial or the trap of compassion fatigue. In other words, it is easy to either close off our hearts or, on the other end of the spectrum, to let them get pummeled more than we can handle. Somewhere in between lies the place where we acknowledge the truth about what is happening and hold space within ourselves to show up to our part of the pain but not to all the pain.


What does this look like? It means being aware of and accepting of the pain we are feeling. Not minimizing it or denying it. Sure, you may be someone who hasn’t lost a loved one to COVID but that does not mean that you are not experiencing pain. I feel pain. You feel pain. As R.E.M. pointed out, everybody hurts sometimes. And the truth is that there is room for all of our pain. Allowing yourself space to feel your pain does not minimize or deny the pain of anyone else. There is room for all our pain when we practice compassion.


We can be respectful of the pain of others without minimizing our own pain. Our pain does not have to be the greatest in the world nor the greatest we have ever felt before it is important or worthy of space. Your pain, whatever it is, wherever it came from, is valid. It’s not a comparison game. 


When I tell myself my pain doesn’t matter because someone else has it worse, or because I have had it worse, or because I might later have it worse only closes my heart and makes me tuck away portions of myself. 


We can also lock away our hearts when we focus on work, kids, schooling from home, whatever, in a way that allows no space for our feelings. Look to see if there are places where you are focusing so much of your energy on something that there is no space left to breathe. No space left to feel. That will be an indicator that, at least in these moments, perhaps you are locking away your heart.


If you are pretending that everything is normal, you may be tucking away your heart.


The flip side is that you may have your heart so open to the pain of the world that you are overwhelmed by it. Perhaps you feel anxious much of the day. Perhaps your news intake is higher than you need. Do you read all the heart wrenching stories and spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways people are hurting? Don’t get me wrong, these stories are important because they remind us about the truth of what is happening and they open our eyes to the experiences of others. They can help pull us out of states of denial, minimization or ignorance (willful or otherwise). And there is great value in being informed about the world around us. We need to stay informed enough that we remember to show up to our piece of the work. But if your system is overloaded when you read them, then you may not be the person for whom they were written.


When our system gets overloaded, it is much harder to show up for normal life duties and also for the emotional realities of what we are experiencing. When we deeply care about the welfare of others, when we are deeply empathetic people, when we believe that it is our job to make the world a better place, when we hold beliefs about “fixing”, etc. it is easy to find ourselves underwater emotionally when we tap too deeply into the pain around us.


You’ve no doubt heard us and others talking about the importance of keeping an open hearted presence in your life. And the truth is that the world needs us to show up and to show up with an open heart more than ever. We are being asked to make sacrifices for the good of each other. We are being asked to fill new (and perhaps frustrating) roles. We are having to make difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty. We have to decide how to talk to our kids about difficult topics. We are having to practice flexibility and creativity. Having grace for each other and for ourselves makes it all feel so much more manageable.


When we are able to find that sweet spot where we are aware and engaged enough to avoid denial but contained enough that we aren’t oversaturated unnecessarily, our systems are able to function better. We will be able to better show up to our work, our internal work, our relationships, and our work as parents. In short, we are able to attend to our piece of the world’s pain. Everyone’s piece is different.


None of us can fix the world alone but we all have a role in it. We all have our own sphere of influence and our own emotional work to attend to. I have found that the best way to be able to do that is to stay in that sweet spot. So as the weeks run into months, and the numbers keep rising, it is my hope that you will find your own open hearted sweet spot. 

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