At the heart of the matter

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I have been thinking a lot about the heart lately - what it does, what it symbolises and what moves mine. With an unusual flutter now and then, mine tends to draw attention when I get too wrapped up in the world.

Over 10 years ago I found myself at the doorstep of a an electro-cardiologist. After I underwent a number of tests and hung out with halter monitor for a while, my cardiologists explained I had a couple of rogue cells in my heart. I was told these mischievous cells were causing around 22,000 ectopic heartbeats a day. To give me a sense of this number, it was explained to me that the average person has only a handful a day, like maybe 5.

Ectopic heartbeats are when the heart skips a beat or the heart has extra beats. In my case I had cells in my heart that wanted to be the ‘big beater’ and so they would jump in with a beat, putting the big beater out of sync, creating lots of additional heart beats - tens of thousands of them a day. Seems these rogue cells were working hard to win the fight to be the boss. When my cardiologist told me what was happening, I couldn’t stop laughing, of course I would have a heart that would go rogue! But not for long, I had a procedure called an ablation, where they burnt those naughty little rogue cells away, and other than the occasional ectopic beat or flutter, my heart now beats to a more acceptable rhythm.

Recently, I had to have an echo-cardiogram, an ultrasound of my heart. Lying there chatting with the specialist sonographer, while the inside of my heart was being examined, I glanced up at the screen briefly and was astonished to see what looked like two little hands inside my heart clapping. The sonographer explained to me it was a valve opening and closing, and he did agree it looked a lot like hands clapping.

I haven’t been able to get this beautiful image out of my head. How delightful to discover that inside our beating hearts are hands applauding us through life. Clapping a rhythm for us to dance. Clapping a rhythm for us to live by.

Pondering this image, got me thinking about the significance of the heart, above and beyond its physical role to pump blood around our bodies to keep us alive (as if that wasn’t enough). I got thinking about what moves my heart. What makes it swell inside with emotion, so much so that it brings tears to my eyes. And I realised when I went through the list of things, they tend to correspond to some of the virtues Aristotle put forward, for people to ‘live well’. Courage. Temperance. Kindness. Joy. Pride. Honour. Equanimity. Friendliness. Honesty. Wit. Friendship. Not necessarily the words he originally used. But you get the idea. I have taken the time to elaborate on a few which stand out for me at this moment in time.

An act of kindness will always bring a gentle smile to my face and a long sigh of appreciation. This may sound a little odd, but next next time you notice someone being kind, pay some attention to your reaction, the gentle smile and the long sigh. A particular act of kindness in my memory banks, which sprung up as soon as I typed the word ‘kindness’, was one from about three years ago when my then 11 year-old daughter was running a cross country race. It was a hard slog of a race. Cold, wet and muddy. As she cross the finish line exhausted from the gruelling race, a girl running not far behind her slipped on a muddy patch of grass just before the finish and fell. She was done. She lay there unable to get up, only a few steps from the finish line. It was heartbreaking to watch. She lay there, defeated, with no more in her. She couldn’t move. She was emotionally spent. Beaten. My daughter saw her fall, so she walked away from the finish line, walked away from her own exhaustion. From the promise of water and rest. She walked to this girl on the ground. My daughter bent down and spoke to her and encouraged her to get up. And when she did, my daughter helped her cross the finish line. Walking with her. Guiding her. Holding her arm. Supporting her across the finish line, together. Helping her drag her muddy limbs and face across the line. My heart swelled at my daughter’s act of kindness. At her care. Her generosity of spirit. And as I share this story right now my heart swells, alongside the tears in the very corners of my eyes.

I am always moved when people are vulnerable enough to be brave. The most recent example of courage that I have come across is the story of Tara Westover. I could not put down her memoir, Educated. I read it with such desperation to turn each page, to find out what was going to happen. So incredibly thirsty for her story. As I collected it from my library just now, and took it to my computer so I could find a quote to share, I notice I was holding it close to my heart, such was the impact of this beautifully written story of a young woman finding her true self at the expense of the love of her family. The book should always be carried beside your heart. When you buy it from the bookstore, walk out with it, cradled to your chest.

Spoiler alert!! Please go to the subhead ‘tenderness’ in order not to ruin your upcoming reading of this fabulous book, as I am about to share something of it from close to the end. A poignant memory Tara shares at perhaps her lowest point.

The moment in the book that broke my heart (which can happen when it swells way too much) where I ended up with my tears falling from my eyes, down my temples and along the edge of my cheek bones into my ears (I was reading in bed, my head in my pillow, and could not get out until I finished her book, and gravity has a way with tears) was the moment she reads the letter from one of her brothers, Tyler, expecting it to be a rejection, but instead it is a moment of acceptance and support, and love.

‘I clicked on the mouse, the attachment opened. I was so far removed from myself that I read the entire letter without understanding it: Our parents are held down by chains of abuse, manipulation and control…They see change as dangerous and will exile anyone who asks for it. This is a perverted idea of family loyalty…They claim faith, but this is not what the gospel teaches. Keep safe. We love you.’ Educated, p363, Tara Westover.

Keep safe. We love you. After I read these words. I sobbed and sobbed for Tara. I know no courage like hers. I was so relieved she was rewarded with love, and not rejection. So relieved that staying true to herself was met with love.

Before my husband became my husband. He was a friend. A photographer, my then boyfriend, who was a graphic designer, hired now and then. I remember the moment I fell in love with him, my future soul mate, although I did not realise that was what he was at the time. We were in Fitzroy, at a rooftop cafe for an opening for something, I can’t remember what. All I remember was it was night time. There were young children there. There was light. A wall. And my then friend, who would one day became my husband, was giving the children attention when no one else was. Entertaining them, with what seemed like a magical trick, but was actually simple hand shadow puppetry. A rabbit. Brought to life on a graffitied brick wall, on a Melbourne evening, on the rooftop of a radio station. The light, behind his hands, bringing to life a rabbit. A rabbit met with wide eyes, gasps, awe, the biggest smiles. The delight of young children. To me, this was an act of tenderness. My heart swelled. Almost to bursting. And I knew in that moment that I was destined to love that man. That man with his shadow puppetry. And I did. And I do.

Creativity and Beauty
Music and art will move my heart. Every time. The beauty of nature, will always expand my heart. The way the sun hits the deck. The way the water glistens from the sunshine. I have spent the day at the beach today. The sunshine, the different hues of blue in the water, the light greeny-blue from the shoreline, the deeper hues of green and blue in the breaking waves, the almost purple blue of the sea where it meets the horizon. The sky blue of the sky from the horizon to above our heads and beyond. It was glorious.

But when I think of creativity and beauty which makes my heart swell, I think of my son playing his guitar. Something he started when he was just 7 years old. Something over a decade later he still loves to do. Sitting in his room or on the couch in our dining room. Playing with such feeling. The guitar almost an anatomical part of him. Not a separate instrument at all. The beautiful blues he plays. The beautiful Spanish guitar songs. The jazz pieces. His favourites. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. And Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heavens’, with it’s lyrics inspired by the death of Clapton's four-year-old son. When talking matters of the heart, of what makes a heart swell with emotion, with tears to match. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish, than with these lyrics. Thank you, Eric Clapton.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?
I'll find my way through night and day
'Cause I know I just can't stay here in heaven

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please

Beyond the door there's peace I'm sure
And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven

The power of kindness


I recently came to a firm conclusion about human beings. Something I really should have realised a long time ago, but I guess I can be a little slow sometimes.

What came to me, is the realisation that we are all vessels of joy. Each and every single one of us. That some of us are full of joy, and some of us have less joy inside. Like cups randomly filled with water, we each have a different volume of joy. And, within ourselves, our joy fluctuates. Some days we have more joy than other days. Sometimes we are simply bursting with it. Other times we have very little. At times none at all.

Thinking about people this way, as vessels of joy, got me wondering about what increases and decreases our joy. I came to the conclusion that, as relational beings, it is how we are treated and how we treat others, which impacts how much joy we have inside of us. That there is a direct relationship between joy and kindness. That it is that simple.

When you are kind to someone, their level of joy increases. When you show generosity of spirit to someone, their level of joy goes up. A genuine and authentic compliment can build the volume of joy inside the person receiving it. But only if the compliment comes from the heart. False flattery is manipulative and actually decreases the joy.

A kind gesture - as simple as noticing where someone is at, asking if they are OK - increases the volume of joy. Looking after someone, putting their needs before yours or going out of your way to help them, can build joy. And not just for the person you are being kind to, but also within yourself.

Each and every time you show a little genuine kindness, you increase the joy within you. You, as a vessel of joy, become fuller. This is the magic of kindness.

An impression of increase

I came across the concept ‘an impression of increase’ earlier this year. It was a key concept from one of the lessons, which was part of a course I was doing: Bob Proctor’s Thinking into Results, facilitated by Georgia Ellis from BlueChip Minds. I remember hearing the phrase for the first time and being really confused. I couldn’t wrap my head around what ‘an impression of increase’ meant or what it looked like. And then, as it was unpacked during the class and we explored the idea of being a giving person, sending good energy to the people you interact with and bringing to people’s attention what they do well, I realised it was, simply, what I call ‘kindness’.

We were asked, as homework for this lesson, to spend the week noticing when we left ‘an impression of increase’, and to write it down. To pay attention to our everyday actions and when we ‘increased others’. My first thought was, ‘Man, I do this a lot. I am often kind to people. I am going to spend a lot of time writing things down.’ Oh, how wrong I was. Half way through the first day of the exercise, I had nothing written down. I rationalised this (and gave myself comfort) by deciding it was the fact that we were actively doing an exercise, which was getting in the way. I remember thinking, ‘My kindness is organic and being asked to notice it, and write it down, is making me overthink it, and I am not doing it like I normally do. We learnt today that a critical aspect of giving is that it must be spontaneous. The exercise is taking the spontaneity out of it. That is what is happening, that is what is wrong.’ Yeah, you bet I felt much better after that. But, by the end of the first day, I hadn’t written anything down. Nothing at all. Nada. Zip. I went home and that night I had a very restless sleep with many sobering thoughts.

What this exercise made me realise, was that I don’t leave ‘an impression of increase’ as often as I thought. I am nowhere near as kind as I imagined myself to be. This was, of course, the intention of the homework.

Joy is not happiness

Joy is different from happiness. Joy is collective, happiness is individual. Happiness is an emotion, joy is a state of being. Joy is what holds a community together. It is the stitching in the fabric of humanity. And we are all responsible in our lives, as to how much joy is in each of our communities. Every family member contributes to the joy of the household. Each person impacts the joy of a friendship group. Every employee impacts the joy of an organisation. Joy does not come from the top. The head of a company alone does not dictate the volume of joy in a workplace, nor does a parent solely drive the volume of joy for his or her family. Everyone contributes, everyone is responsible. And usually, it comes from the bottom up, where the number of people, relationships and interactions are greater. We all have the power within us to unlock the power of kindness and fill the vessels of joy around us.

Filling the cup

Start noticing how often you leave ‘an impression of increase’, how often you spontaneously give to others and the frequency of your kindness. Do it for a week and then compare the reality to your perception. Make kindness a habit. Watch the joy increase in those around you, in your community and in your own self. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be over the top. It can be the simplest thing, the smallest of gestures.

“When a child walks in the room, your child or anybody else's child, do your eyes light up? That's what they're looking for.” Toni Morrison

The beautifully talented author Toni Morrison, who blessed us with such wisdom in her writing, left this earth recently. Thankfully her words live on. This inspirational statement, these very real words apply to everyone, not just children. When someone, anyone, walks into your home, your office, your workspace, your life, do your eyes light up? That is what we are all looking for. It is how you leave an impression of increase. It is how you fill the vessels of joy. It is the power of kindness.