December 8, 2019
They grow too big to hold what’s inside, and they break open. The only way to get at the good stuff is to let them break. Having experienced this more than once, I speak with confidence. Hearts break open with joy as well as sadness. A broken-open heart is how love shows itself.
Loving someone is risky. It requires vulnerability and courage, and always begins and ends with a broken-open heart. We need to stop protecting ourselves from that. Through trial and error, we get better at expressing both vulnerability and courage. I love what Susan David says in her book, Emotional Agility:
Abandon the idea of being fearless, and instead walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.
I once told someone I was afraid of everything. It’s still true—I’m scared of everything unfamiliar until I walk through it and notice it doesn’t kill me. When I lean in and don’t follow my instinct to run away from an uncomfortable feeling, fear begins to loosen its grip. I’ve discovered that I don’t have to work so hard—I just need to keep walking.
A variety of things can break our hearts open—achievements and failures and generosities, both in the giving and the getting—anything that expands our hearts while pushing us outside our comfort zones will do the trick.
We stand up for people when they need support and stop going along with the crowd when they’re tearing someone down. We fess up to our mistakes instead of waiting to see if we’ll get caught. We see a little boy in a wheelchair, and instead of looking away, we smile and say hello. We make the first move to reconcile a disagreement that turned into an angry separation.
We learn it is liberating to manage ourselves and behave in ways that feel right to us. We stop needing the world’s approval. We don’t worry if we don’t get a “hello” back, or if the disagreement isn’t resolved perfectly. Even if we get rebuffed when we make the first move, what matters is that with every courageous step forward our hearts get bigger, and we become stronger and kinder.
Hearts break open when we get out of our own way and ask what we can give, rather than what we can get. When we risk telling a hard truth with kindness or receive an uncomfortable truth with openness and receptivity. When we love deeply, and then lose what we love.
There is nothing sadder than letting our fear of discomfort or loss keep our lives small. What are we protecting? We’ve all been there. We convince ourselves that emotions like anger, or sadness, or embarrassment are either unbearable or unnecessary, so we feel justified in holding ourselves back from taking a chance. Or we make ourselves feel less insecure by throwing our opinions around like grass seed, hoping that no one will notice we’re not quite as sure of ourselves as we’d like to think we are.
I want an expansive life. I want to be courageous. I want to continue to be “fear walking,” so these days a broken-open heart doesn’t feel so bad. It almost feels like a breath of fresh air and a peace offering to myself. Vulnerability feels like strength, not weakness.
Courage doesn’t mean taking a dramatic leap into the unknown; it can be as simple as smiling and meeting the eyes of a stranger in a wheelchair rather than looking away.
Sure, occasionally we get screwed. That comes with the territory. But if we let that experience close our hearts and turn us away from being ourselves in the interactions we care about, we end up screwing ourselves. It isn’t how much we accomplished or how many times we failed that matters to us at the end of a day; it’s how the day felt. It always seems to come back to the question of how much did we love?
“We are never more powerful than when we are completely vulnerable and have nothing to defend” has been a mantra that has shaped my adult life. It seems counter-intuitive. But deep down, we know it’s more satisfying to trust than not.
Think of one area where you keep your heart closed by telling yourself things that aren’t true. Things like: “I’ve always been this way in relationships, and people don’t change.” “They’ll be unhappy with me if I tell them the truth, and I can’t stand that.” “I’m not good at relationships,” blah blah blah …
Apologize to someone you’ve hurt. Make it a real one. “I’m sorry that I hurt you. I hope you’ll tell me what I can do to make amends. I will do my best to change my behaviors, so it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for having the courage to tell me how you feel.”
Do the thing you’ve dreaded. Maybe it’s as simple as listening first. Sincerely listen to someone with whom you profoundly disagree; listen until you hear something with which you can agree. That’s where a conversation, rather than a conflict, can begin. Ask questions in order to understand where someone is coming from, not to catch their factual mistakes. Every time we do anything that adds to someone else, rather than diminishing them, our hearts get bigger.
The vast majority of us want the same things. We want the world to be safer. We want to make sure we provide for ourselves and our children. We want families and communities that support us, and we want the opportunity to contribute. We are at our best when we use our commonalities to connect with each other. I’m envisioning 2020 as the year that kindness goes viral. I picture a world of people with different skin colors, wearing different clothing and hairstyles, speaking in different languages, all walking around with broken-open hearts, looking into each other’s eyes, and smiling.