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07/11/2023 06:47:19 PM


The secret to opening our hearts is simply to begin

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a woman she knew who got cancer.  A male psychiatrist who was the woman's longtime running partner began avoiding her, even when she called.  Finally, the woman beat her cancer back into remission.  Shortly afterward, she ran into the psychiatrist, and told him how hurt she was that he hadn't returned her calls.  "I'm sorry," he said, "I simply did not know the right thing to say."  Remen asked the woman what she would have wanted to hear.  She smiled sadly, "Oh, something like, 'I heard it's been a hard year.  How are you doing?'  Some simple human thing like that."

The male psychiatrist was not an evil person, but he had allowed his heart to harden.  He had let down a friend.  And he did it not because he was uncaring but because he didn't understand that even a small act of kindness would make a difference. 

The same thing happens on a community level.  People who care about social justice often feel their little acts won't mean anything, and so they do nothing.  We don't see ourselves as able citizens who can help heal the world.  Maybe we compare ourselves to great social activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and knowing we'll never measure up, cease to even try.  Or maybe we say that when we retire, we will start to care more.  Perhaps we are waiting for the courage and wisdom of old age.  But in the meantime, our waiting means not enough is being done to heal the world.  And it also means that our hearts are slowly hardening.  For this is the price of endless deferral of trying harder to be better human beings.  We never change, and we never make a difference.

The good news is that just as our hearts can gradually harden, so, too, can they gradually soften.  To be a good person does not mean we wake up and say, "O.K., it's time to be Mother Teresa."  If this were necessary, most of us would despair of ever being good people.  Fortunately, softening our hearts is also a subtle enterprise.    It happens gradually in the small but significant details of life.

There's a very famous saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  When it comes to softening our hearts, the most important thing to do is begin with an act of kindness.  The French theologian Phillipe Verneir offers the following advice: "Do not wait for great strength before setting out for immobility will weaken you further.  Do not wait to see very clearly before starting: one has to walk toward the light.  Have you strength enough to take this first step?…You will be astonished to feel that the effort accomplished, instead of having exhausted your strength, has doubled it--and that you already see more clearly what you have to do next."  In other words, the secret to opening our hearts is simply to begin.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784