I believe that the human heart has greater potential than can be reckoned. This is a potential that includes self-surpassing and life-destroying capacities. To act generously; to relate compassionately; to undergo the worst and respond with the best: these heart gestures reach us beyond ourselves and make us more gracious. To act murderously, to hate relentlessly, to suffer the worst and respond in kind: these heart impulses rob us of life and its greater possibilities, and reduce us. I believe that in the human heart we glimpse power similar to the sun’s energy: a venue for life’s generation, and for life’s obliteration. The difference between them is crucial.
This I experienced in 1971 as I emerged from an automobile tunnel in a remote mountainous region of the former Yugoslavia. Along the roadside I glimpsed an odd, beckoning statue. The surprise of the statue magnified itself as I approached by foot: a blackened human skeleton, true in scale and proportion, held aloft in its boney hands its own plump heart. The proffering gesture of the statue haunted all thinking into stark relief. Deathly horror was conjoined oddly to hopeful aspiration, thereby creating a stirring visual paradox: life subverts death through the human heart.
In that remote cold I could not begin to picture the million-fold suffering that took place on the earth beneath my feet. Children and adults faced unrelenting pain – pain beyond any scale we can create for its measure. People were selected as objects of hatred and fear as a matter of public policy. They were treated with monumental inhumanity. What human beings did to human beings there (and elsewhere) stuns still. Genocide is but one name for this horror. Today it differentiates itself little from Rwanda to Kurdistan to Tehran to Baghdad to Darfur to Hiroshima to Palestine to Israel to Wounded Knee.
What’s noteworthy is this: the magnitude of the human heart’s capacity to be dappled, if you will, by both life and death. And the difference may be simple: the role we choose to give to fear & hatred. This decision determines whether our hearts aspire or expire. For hatred is powerful and fear runs deep. They can each be a fire in the mind – a fire that burns without awareness of its fuel. What quells fear & hatred is a pause in the syntax of societal madness – a pause that opens and hallows us – a pause that can be nearly impossible to find.
I found it 35 years ago. Or truer said it found me in a lonely statue. Human evil is no less dense and destructive, I now know, for its unseeing and mechanic murderousness. Even as human generosity and compassion are no less luminous, I believe, for their enacting of the great wonder: the human heart can separate itself from death and offer life a gift. Rising above tides of murderous madness, the heart offers the gift of self-giving.
For this, I believe.
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