- a hollow muscular organ that pumps the blood through the circulatory system by rhythmic contraction and dilation
- the emotional or moral nature as distinguished from the intellectual nature
- one’s most innermost character, feeling, or inclinations
- the essential or most vital part of something
When you look up the word “heart” these are a few of the definitions provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I bring your attention to these specific definitions because they lie at the heart (pun intended) of what I’d like to share in the following post.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 805,000 Americans suffer a heart attack every year. This amounts to about one heart attack every 40 seconds. The long list of risk factors such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and stress reflect conditions that many of us live with ourselves or have a loved one who does. For this reason, people from all walks of life may find themselves in a waiting room of the cardiac unit much like I did this past month.
As I entered the hospital, so many thoughts of worry, blame, and guilt bubbled up from a place of fear. The fear of uncertainty and helplessness stirred an overwhelming mix of feelings leading to an endless chain of questions. Will my mom survive a second heart attack? Will the surgery be successful? Could this have been prevented? Why her? Why me? My mind and heart struggled to organize the concoction of thoughts swirling within me to make sense of it all. So I did the one thing that I knew I must do. Breathe.
Inhale. Exhale. Push the elevator button to go up. Inhale. Exhale. Push the button for the 2nd floor. Inhale. Exhale. Be present. Release the “why didn’t” and “what if.” Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
I was beginning to feel a sense of calm as I gradually entered into presence. At the reception desk sat an elderly woman with a kind smile. She wore a light colored cardigan and a delicate gold cross hung from her neck. She seemed to effortlessly discern my need for stillness. In a soft spoken manner, she introduce herself as Sister Evelyn (I’ve changed her name for this writing.) and offered a moment of what I preceived as deep compassion and understanding before escorting me to the waiting room, or family lounge. She told me I would be able to find quiet there since no one else was in the room yet.
Inhale. Exhale. Feel grateful for Sister Evelyn’s comfort. Inhale. Exhale. Accept her offering of tenderness. Inhale. Exhale. Be present. Repeat.
After some time, Sister Evelyn returned to the family lounge with another woman. My heart recognized two things right away. First, Sister Evelyn escorted this woman and shared a deep compassion and understanding with her much like she did for me earlier. She exemplified connection and unconditional love for two complete strangers. There’s no doubt that Sister Evelyn has done this for each person that walked up to the reception desk but she had a way of making it feel so profoundly personal. The next thing I recognized was the energy surrounding this woman whom Sister Evelyn introduced as Sharon. (I’ve changed her name, too.) I knew all too well the look of uncertainty, helplessness, and fear on her face because that is precisely the look I had walked into the hospital with about an hour earlier.
Initially, we looked at each other without exchanging any words. We looked at each other long enough that it would have been uncomfortable in any other situation. However, I believe it was in this gaze that a connection of empathy was being formed. Sharon slowly began voicing her feelings. She spoke in single sentences with long pauses in between as if to allow the emotions that hung on each word to find a place to rest. Normally, in moments like this, I quickly search for the right words to offer comfort. But this time was very different.
Sharon would speak. I then would inhale and exhale with my eyes closed. I’d return my gaze to Sharon. Again, she would speak. I’d inhale her pain and exhale to release. She speaks. I inhale and exhale. This continued for a few minutes until we both were able to manage a gentle and knowing smile. She simple said, “Thank you for listening,” and we gave each other a supportive hug.
I believe what happened in that space is nothing short of a synchronicity of human connection through our common experience of pain and fear. Shortly before meeting Sharon, I spent time to breathe, release, and align with the present. This allowed me to be open and aware of her state as she sat down before me. It offered me the opportunity to inhale her fears as she spoke them and exhale them away. I understood empathy in a way that I never had before. Empathy is being able to recognize the suffering of another; to fully feel their suffering; and to then release the suffering. It is saying I am here to take some of your pain so you don’t have to feel it all on your own. It’s also making sure that the pain taken from the other doesn’t now become my own suffering. Inhale AND exhale.
In her wisdom, I’m convinced that Sister Evelyn set the flow of heartfelt connection to happen. This experience carried me through the hours that followed as I met others who carried the same burden of uncertainty and pain while waiting to hear about loved ones undergoing heart surgery. And in the same way connection helped me and Sharon, the instant we began connecting with each other through our shared vulnerabilities, the heaviness of fear would lift in the family lounge. We knew we were not alone in our experience.
Let’s all take care of all matters of the heart.
- Be aware of the essential role your heart plays in the health of our physical bodies. The American Heart Association https://www.heart.org/ is just one place to start to raise our awareness of heart disease.
- Be aware of the essential role your heart plays in the health of our spirits and souls. We all need kindness, compassion, and empathy when we experience suffering. In other words, a paradox of life reveals that it through of the common experience of pain that we discover our capacity to love.
Thankfully, both my mom and Sharon’s husband are recovering well after their heart surgeries. Inhale. Exhale. I continue to pray that the loved ones of the others I met in the family lounge of the cardiac unit are also recovering well. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.