24 August 2015
We call ourselves modern, yet we still hold the heart as our most sacred organ. No other part of us represents so great a range of emotions and power. Not only does it drive our lives in the practical sense, it symbolizes the way we perceive our whole world.
The ancients revered the heart as the seat of strength; some cultures, on making a kill in battle or during a hunt, would cut it out and eat it while the heart was still beating. The Egyptians considered it the core of one’s being, and it was the only organ they did not extract before mummifying their dead. Probably because the heart so clearly kept us alive, humans came to believe that one’s intelligence and soul derived from the heart. Plato proposed an encephalocentric (brain centered) concept of human perception, but his pupil, Aristotle, held to the idea of a cardiocentric (heart centered) intelligence. Aristotle’s model continued to dominate well into the 16th century.
One reason for that misconception was because most Western culture shunned anatomical exploration until post-Renaissance times, but I understand the allure of the cardiocentric model. Who wouldn’t prefer to imagine that our humanity rises from a rich, red muscle pumping liquid life, versus a glob of inactive grey matter?
Two thousand years went by before science validated Plato, and in the meantime humanity continued to develop mythologies and vocabularies around the cult of the heart. We composed songs and literature depicting every extreme of good and bad hearts. We worshipped Jesus with his Sacred Heart, which exemplified his divine love for humanity. We created art and adorned architecture with stylized hearts. We invented a holiday that celebrates the heart’s distinctive shape and its representation of romantic love.
Such a range of symbolism we have come to associate with hearts!
The black heart is evil, cold, and cruel. A heartless person feels no compassion for others. We become heartsick when experiencing the loss of a loved one. Though it doesn’t seem possible, how many times have we heard of someone dying of a broken heart? Meanwhile, well-regarded and generous people are considered warm-hearted or good-hearted. Our first love is a sweetheart. A good friend is a dear heart. We part from companions saying we will hold them close to our heart.
Hearts drive our passions, our compassion, and our connections with others. Love flows from our heart; without love, it is said to harden to ice. Warmth and hospitality comes from the heart. The heart houses our soul, whether or not we hold with religion.
As a practical thing, the heart is a truly amazing organ. It has the capacity to slow down or speed up according to the body’s needs. It can withstand incredible levels of trauma, reconstruction, and stress. By our 70th birthdays, our hearts will have beaten around 2.2 billion times. This indispensable organ will last longer if we treat it well over our lifetime, but not all hearts are created equal. Some have inherent strength that sets them apart.
I dedicate this week’s letter to one person in particular, someone who has the stoutest heart that I know. For nearly three decades, his heart has beaten the odds; it has been cut and rebuilt, invaded and patched a half dozen times. It’s struggling now, but I believe it still has miles left to go, and his doctors agree. Tuesday I will wait, heart in mouth, as once again they patch up his stalwart old ticker. I believe in the doctors’ skill, and I believe in his heart with every ounce of my soul, and when I envision that feeling I become a latter-day cardiocentric.
My belief in a good outcome radiates from my chest and not from my head.
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