Softening the Heart

If the heart is armored against pain and loss and fear, the bad stuff can’t get in but neither can the good. Usually what happens is just the heart going numb.

Not too long after my diagnosis, I got a call from a friend; the father of one of her friends had just been diagnosed and she wondered if I would talk with him. I would have been happy to but her father didn’t want to talk to me. In fact, he didn’t want to talk to anyone, even his family. He more or less turned his face to the wall, went inward, and died soon thereafter. I felt for him and I felt for his family. I don’t know why it happened that way. All I really know is that he left his family holding a bag of pain, sorrow, anger and confusion; he was gone from them before he even died. I don’t ever want to leave to my family a legacy like that.

Barb wire heartI’ve thought about this a lot. What causes us to chose numbness? Not being able to cope, surely – pain is probably the big one, pride is in there, self-image, fear, anger, collapse of a belief system, loss, shock, grief, stress, depression. I suppose any or many of them are called into our lives when we get a diagnosis like pancreatic cancer. I have written elsewhere (The Liminal/First Steps) how it feels those first weeks, like you’re wrapped in cotton batting with sound and time and conversation slowed, feeling slightly out of synch with the world; from this place, it’s an easy choice to go numb. The giant problem with choosing numbness however is that you miss out on the life you have left. It also keeps people from asking for help and, for me, this was the most important time in my life to ask for help; I do believe that my circle of friends saved my life. But no one would have known had I kept it a secret. No one would have given me their love if I’d been stoic. No one could have helped me if I hadn’t asked.

from ADVICE by Ruth Stone

If I heard a girl crying help                                                                                                                    I would go to save her;                                                                                                                        But you hardly ever hear those words.                                                                                        Dear children, you must try to say                                                                                         Something when you are in need.                                                                                               Don’t confuse hunger with greed;                                                                                                  And don’t wait until you are dead.

I’m writing about this simply because I have seen too many good people go numb with a terminal diagnosis and I feel grieved for them. I can see that it might be easier in one way not to feel, but oh my, what you give up. Life. Life is bubbling and moving and juicy. It’s the reverse of numb. I didn’t feel I had the time to go numb, I really wanted to enjoy what life I had left. I wanted to watch a storm at the beach, have lunch on a sunny day by the river, just lie in the grass and watch the clouds float by. One last time, at the very least. Like Tim’s song, live like you were dying.

I believe the opposite of a numbed heart is a softened heart, because a softened heart meets the world with vulnerability, with acceptance, with feeling, with love (and not a little courage too). I came across Julie Interrante as a writer for a group I admire, Healing Journeys (see Resources).  She says it better and more beautifully than I can and she was kind enough to give permission to reprint her writing (you can find her website at Here is what she says:

When touched by cancer, everyone faces fear and doubt.

We are launched into a deep experience of uncertainty. Uncertainty and self-doubt can contribute to feelings of self-blame, wondering what we might have done wrong or whether there was something we could have done to avoid it. Illness is not meant for self-recrimination or blame. It is meant for tenderness, self-acceptance and love,

It is why being touched by cancer is such a powerful catalyst. We can use it as the practice ground for cultivating true gentleness and love. An experience of illness magnifies the places within us that need light and kindness. Living with life-altering illness is a brilliant opportunity to cultivate tenderness through a softened heart. It is about being fully human. Accepting the limitations and gifts of being a human being are rooted in a softened heart.

As we soften toward ourselves, we soften toward life. As we soften toward life we experience acceptance and surrender. In short, we come to love life just as it is. We live more fully, recognizing everything is an opportunity to be tender, intimate and present. We see with greater clarity and take ourselves less seriously, giving ourselves a chance to laugh more easily, love more freely and let go more gently.

The journey of loving ourselves is the most important journey of our lives. It makes life make sense. Being tender with one’s self makes it possible to love others and to have an authentic intimate life. Learning tenderness through the experience of being touched by cancer significantly changes and enriches our lives.





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