Wanderings of the Heart

by J. Blake on October 6, 2011

Say these words out loud: “follow your heart.” How do you feel?

This phrase speaks to the love and emotion that makes us each profoundly human, and it alludes to beautiful ideals such as free spirit and free will. If you’re anything like me, joy and peace envelope you when you think about it. Ahhh …

The reality of following your heart, however, isn’t always so pleasant, particularly if your heart is calling you to be part of the solution to some societal issue, problem or injustice. Like war, heart following can, in actuality, be more “gory” than “glory.” And, those of us on the front lines of the helping professions are almost always the first casualties.

We—the teachers, therapists, social workers, first responders, activists and other helping souls—are lost frequently to burnout. Almost inevitably, we eventually confront the difficult feelings such as disillusionment, helplessness, hopelessness and exhaustion that stem from doing the profoundly human work of this world.

Burnout is only natural as the soft idealism of our highest humanity bumps repeatedly against the hard realities of long hours, bad conditions, entrenched systems, ungrateful recipients of our energy, and the innate human resistance to change. It is not surprising at all, then, when at some point we arrive at the question, “Is any of this really worth it?” As doubt takes hold, we wonder if we really can impact our world in any substantial kind of way.

The truth is: doing the real human work is the guts and the gore of our earthly existence. A retired homicide detective once told me he could face his job daily because he knew there were “things that need attending to.” Things like mopping up blood. For first responders, this is very literally so. For the rest of us, it still holds true figuratively. We absorb the grief, or even the wrath, of others when we dare to move in close to their suffering.

Yes, these are important things that absolutely need attending to. We do them if we desire to participate in shaping the society in which we live. But, there are other things that need attending to, as well. Things like our own selves. We need to set boundaries in our lives or we risk being consumed by the work. We are simply no good to anyone when we are depleted emotionally, physically, financially—a fact I am grappling with head on at this very moment.

Our hearts do have a tendency to run off fast and far. And, all too often, rather than steering us toward the safe arms of support and security, they are wont to lead us out on a lonely highway and strand us there. When the overwhelm and exhaustion take over, there is little in the way of support or even empathy. Thus, we are foolish if we completely abandon our own needs in our pursuit of some high good.

As Paul Rogart Loeb notes in his book, Soul of a Citizen, we must pay attention to important personal concerns like our emotional well-being and our basic economic survival. If we do not, we are, at best, less than optimally effective and, at worst, subject to burn out and drop off completely.

News flash: Trying to turn Maslow’s Hierarchy on its head, tackling transcendence before safety, is a recipe for certain collapse.

So what does it mean? Don’t ever let your heart lead? Shut off the compassion spigot completely? Live solely in the intellect? Tuning out our hearts–no matter how tempting it may be at times or how prudent it may seem–cannot bring us to fulfillment, either. The only answer can be, then, balance.

Gloria Steinem suggested “sacrificial nurturers” flip the Golden Rule on it’s head: “Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.” This, she explains, does not mean withdrawing from the world, but refusing to cannibalize ourselves for the sake of our commitments. Other activists remind us that while we can’t solve all the world’s problems, we can take on one project at a time and continue to do so for our entire lifespan.

In other words, we can pace ourselves.

AsThich Nhat Hanh advises, “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” Yes, we can still follow our hearts, but it is also perfectly acceptable for us to be a tortoise rather than a hare as we go about it. Doing so allows us to retain more of the peace and absorb less of the frustration that comes with the journey.

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