Above all, guard your heart, for from it flows the wellsprings of life. – Prov. 4:23
I am not one to make New Years’ Resolutions. It seems a puerile practice when one fully anticipates returning to the couch ten days after signing up for a year-long gym membership. But delusion is a powerful drug, and it works hardest after Christmastide, when jollity and feasting are followed with the hangover and return to work. We know we should be better, but we do not know how—or do not care for the discipline it takes. So the whimsical pledge is unnecessary at best, crippling at worst.
Though I do not wish to resolve, I nevertheless use the extra space at the end of the year to reflect and listen to what I believe the Spirit has been whispering over the past year. And what I have been hearing is that I need a deeper level of hospitality. Not merely the welcoming of the stranger into my home or the student into my office, but the warmth of those I already know into my life. I tend to hold people at a distance, even those in close proximity of space or of blood. I have become increasingly aware of the walls I intentionally construct between myself and others. Perhaps I fear exposure, or worry that others might use information about me to hurt me in some way, or doubt that they will treat me with charity. Though I do not know the reason, I feel the distance and know that I need to bridge it.
But how to do this? In giving more of myself to others, I cannot vomit emotions on the unsuspecting, who, in their reasonable effort to remain clean, will close themselves off to me. Nor do I dare expose myself to the exploitative lest I lose parts of my self to the injurious and wicked. If you also bear this heavy baggage—and it is you, my friend, to whom this missive is written—I wonder if the answer is proper armor.
The thoughtless and unreflective heart bares its soul widely, showing its wounds to any who will see. These precious people believe they will find catharsis in the sharing, and at times they do, but the constant sharing doesn’t always result in scaring—only keeping open the wound. We all know the types: the indulgent mother who lives entirely for her children, the friend who cannot listen without talking about his own problems, the Eeyore who can find the storm on a sunny day, the Scarlet Witch who cannot bear the burden of reality. By contrast, the hardened and callous heart keeps its wounds hidden, sometimes even from itself, sometimes without the recognition of any wounds. Here, too, we know these people well: the husband and father who finds more meaning in his work than in his family, the hedonist who reframes all suffering into pleasure, the Tin Man who doesn’t know how to feel. Every injury scabs quickly, quickly becomes a scar—until the whole organ is so scarred as to be unrecognizable. Such a heart is idle, dried up and hollowed by the fear of use.
Between these two extremes, I think, lies a heart neither over-exposed or under-used. The armored heart protects itself against unneeded pain, feeling and sharing the anguish of a fallen world while refusing to be overcome by it. The armored heart tastes deeply of life, taking part in community without losing itself entirely to it. The armored heart opens itself enough to love—and by extension, to the grief without which love cannot exist. The armored heart, then, will bear scars, but it will learn from those scars without hardening itself against all future wounds.
If you bear this burden as well, then you might also do well to guard your heart. Armor will give us the space to exercise our hearts and open them to others wisely. For to be fully human is to be humane, to feel rightly in the right time and place. In everything, it seems, moderation is the mean and wisdom the means.