In Proverbs 4:23, King Solomon shares a timeless nugget of wisdom about the heart:
“More than you guard anything, safeguard your heart, for from it are the sources of life.” (1)
G-d places a high priority on the heart. All through scripture we find instructions on how to care for our hearts, how to identify the weeds in our hearts that need to be pulled out, the deceitfulness of trusting our hearts too much and how to keep our hearts humble before G-d. The human heart is one of the single greatest mysteries of G-d’s creation. It is full of complexities, can be hardened or softened, can give and receive, be opened or closed, light or dark, close to Him or far away. It is an eternal riddle to which He alone holds the keys of understanding. He, however, gives us tiny glimpses into this sacred internal space within us that He formed and knit together in our mother’s womb. (Ps 139:13)
Our hearts possess an incredible capacity to feel both the highest and most joyful, euphoric emotions as well as the lowest, most sorrowful pains of anguish…and everything between. We are a kaleidoscope of supreme complexity and have an incredible emotional range of experiences within our repertoire.
Certainly every single one of us has incurred or experienced enough pain, disappointments, challenges, failures, bumps in the road, setbacks, tragedies, losses, impairments or disadvantages that we could each probably build a fort of self-loathing, plant a white flag billowing from the top of it and live there forever. We could each build a very convincing case loaded with excuses for why we should throw in the towel, clam up into a fetal position and rock softly in a dark corner while singing quietly (padded walls optional). While it paints a humorous picture for some it’s a little too close to reality for others. It’s probably no news flash to you but life on this planet is H-A-R-D! Like bumps and scrapes and bruises and concussions hard. Like broken lives and damaged relationships hard. Even collapsing ministries and divided families hard. I get it. We’ve all walked some kind of broken road. Yours may look different from mine but each of us has walked a path with some broken glass on it and we’ve all had our hearts a little tattered. Who among us lacks sufficient excuses to just shut down and become emotional vegetables? No one. Now that I’ve fed all of our excuses to live in self pity and wallow in our woes, I’d like to talk about how to live the exact opposite. I want to propose a better way…living with a free and wide open heart.
While this sounds like a romanticized and naive idea taken from a Golden Years children’s story book I assure you it’s no whimsical or weak proposition. It’s not a feminine concept which excludes men from participation. There is nothing easy about it so please remove from your mind the wistful images of skipping through fields of wild lilies and rabbits scampering through lush meadows. Forget turtles and puppies and everything else in that cutesy soft category in your mind. Take this concept out of that category entirely. It is not (I repeat) it is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. This is the kind of stuff that separates the men from the boys. Put this open-hearted way of being right up there with Braveheart and The Patriot on your DVD shelf. This is the blood, sweat and tears, no guts-no glory approach to life. Right about now I’d imagine you’re looking around for a sign up sheet to join huh?
Since I’ve just painted a picture proposing that we live with a heart posture which sounds as excruciating as the pains and setbacks I mentioned in my earlier paragraph, you might not see the benefits of the upgrade. As I previously stated though, life is difficult and painful at times. We know that. But in our self-deluding internal talk we think that pain comes from having our hearts open and it’s less painful to be closed. That would seem like a naturally logical conclusion to draw except that it’s entirely, completely and totally untrue. All of life is hard. We just get to choose which hard we want to live in.
On extreme opposite ends of any spectrum you’ll find something hard. Being in poor health and wasting away slowly with disease is painful and hard…but so is being an Olympic athlete at the peak of their game with hours of training, the risk of injury, sore muscles, 10-12 hour practices, years of work and a narrow chance of medal glory in the end. Both options are hard but if given the choice between the two we’d all want to be on the Olympic end of the “hard” continuum. Why is that? Because we understand on some level that this is a better kind of hard life. It’s wrought with sacrifices and challenges and setbacks and potential repeat failures but we’d still want it. Why? Because it pushes us to our highest physical potential and feeds our innate, G-d given desire to be great, to accomplish mighty and awesome things, and to grow into the best version of who we were created to be. Bottom line: life never ceases to be hard or challenging. There will always be resistance pushing at us and we will always have obstacles to overcome so long as we are converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. But we do have some degree of choice as to the kind of hard life we want to lead. In the same way that being an Olympian is far superior to the dire condition of a diseased, low quality of life, on the heart spectrum, living with an open one trumps the self-protected heart every. single. time. Here’s how that works…
Rather than imagining the heart like a light switch to be flipped off or on, consider it more like the dimmer on a light switch. There is a gradient on the heart…a transition between open and closed. Currently, most of us are probably living somewhere near the middle between an open and closed heart and circumstances either open us more or shut us down. Someone tells you how much they love you and your heart expands open but when someone cuts you off in traffic you become instantly closed, defensive and visions of swinging baseball bats dance around in your head, right? When someone gives to you generously and thoughtfully without a quid pro quo expectation of return, your heart opens to receive their selfless generosity and you respond with gratitude. When you experience rejection, hurt, loss or broken promises your heart begins to close again. We live between the tension of opening and closing. Stress generally closes us a little, rest and refreshment open us. Love opens us, anger closes us. You get the idea.
So why does living with an open heart trump living with a closed one?
In the same way that it’s difficult to clean your house with the lights off, it’s hard to go through life without the lights of your heart on. When the light of our heart is off, we aren’t really full “home” or present. We become numb, dulled, lacking in discernment and suspicious of others’ actions and motives when our hearts are closed. We second guess ourselves and lack the confidence to make wholehearted decisions. We live too close to the line of fear and caution when we are closed off to life. Nothing feels safe. Nothing seems trustworthy. The heart lives in a restless state and often pings between extremes rather than resting in a stance of being open, present and trusting.
We think that by staying closed we protect the good and keep the bad out. We mistakenly believe that remaining closed blocks the pain and minimizes the potential for disappointment and the chance of failure from setting our hopes too high. The truth is that we can’t be open and trusting while being closed and protective at the same time. We can’t openly and authentically relate to those around us with a heart partially shut down. It just doesn’t work. We are whole human beings with many complexities but we do not exist in compartments. We can’t shut down part of our heart and open another part. We can’t shut down painful emotion and expect to feel the exhilaration of the joyful emotions. The heart is very all or nothing. We choose to remain open and feel both the joy and the sadness of life and respond openly to all of it or we close it all down–blocking the joys of life from coming in and keeping our pain trapped inside instead of releasing it.
Having highlighted the ways we shut down and what makes the heart open and close I want to explain the process of living with an open heart by making some distinctions between what it is and what it isn’t.
Living with an open heart does NOT mean:
Having no boundaries.
Living with a heart wide open is not a total, inhibited openness to anyone and anything. There are some people and situations with which we should maintain an open guardedness. But this is different from being closed. To be closed is to shut down, cease all signs of life, turn off feelings, etc. It’s a state of emotional paralysis where our discernment is numbed. An open guardedness is staying present in the moment, feeling the caution/hesitation and discerning the situation without giving an unsafe or untrustworthy person/situation access to our heart. To remain openly guarded we must build and maintain healthy boundaries. The heart cannot properly relate to life or people without these healthy boundaries in place. A closed heart is a poor man’s way of boundary setting. That is living in the continual state of open/close, open/close with every situation rather than remaining always open and protecting by boundaries without closing the heart. When strong, balanced and healthy boundaries are in place there is no need to close the heart down to protect it. For more on boundary setting I’d recommend this book. It lays a good foundational understanding.
Being a passive doormat or victim
An open heart is not a heart that begs for abuse, mistreatment or emotional bullying. There is never a situation which makes that treatment of the heart okay or acceptable…period. Having proper boundaries in place will prevent the doormat & victim scenarios from occurring. Being open doesn’t mean being passive. It means being present. It means fully engaging with the world around you and the way your heart feels in response to that world.
So how do we live more open in our daily lives? This is a question I ask myself just about daily. I’m continually growing in this area and looking for how to do it better. I’m practicing at this and will not ever claim to be an expert at it. But here’s a little of what I’m learning about how to keep an open heart:
1) Be a student of your heart.
That sounds like some funky psychological babble but I’m being serious. Start observing what, in your life, triggers your heart’s instant reaction to close. Notice what makes your heart feel open. Recognizing our opening/closing tendencies is a big step in learning how to live with our hearts open. If we don’t know what shuts them down it’s difficult to know what to do differently, how to respond and how to practice with those situations.
2) Don’t be afraid of being adventurous.
What I mean by that is to take tiny risks. Put a little more of your heart out there in your life and relationships than you normally would. Push your comfort zone out a little bit more. For example, if you’re interested in someone, put a little piece of your heart out there (to the degree that trust will allow and they have proven themselves on some level). Show your genuine interest and then give them room to respond. I’m not talking about guitar serenades below bedroom windows but make a small gesture and and see how it’s received. While it may feel safer to keep your feelings a secret reserved for top level security clearance, this will inevitably keep your heart closed and prevent the possibilities that might happen should the other person know your true feelings. As another example, if you’re on a job interview and want to clam up and close down, sit back a little bit, smile more, tell a joke or a funny personal story that says you’re a real person and not just a job candidate. Make people fall in love with who you are. We are naturally drawn to the infectious energy of happy, alive and open people. The process for getting there is a daily one…made one decision at a time.
Because I like lists with at least 3 items…here’s #3:
3) Start practicing with your high trust relationships.
The people who know you, love you, buy your daughter’s Girl Scout cookies, would help you move, water your plants & get your mail when you’re on vacation, bring you soup and a book when you’re home sick, hand you tissues and hold you when you cry or give you stellar advice when you need counsel are your high trust relationships. These are your safe spaces. These are the people with whom your heart easily remains open the majority of the time. Friendships in this space feel effortless and family bonds, when high trust is present, are strongly woven. This is where you practice. It’s your training ground. If you were Daniel in The Karate Kid this would be your Mr. Miyagi. These are the types of relationships that are best to practice maintaining an open heart with because they know you, you trust them, and if the relationship is strong enough, it will safety net you if you fall while you’re learning. If you close down, these are the friends and family who will probably notice it and lovingly help you re-open. Relationships are required to learn this open-hearted way of living. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There would be little point in learning this skill if you were the sole human being on the planet. We need relationships to learn openness. Growing, healthy and sustainable relationships should nurture us and open our hearts more than we are able to open them ourselves alone. The heart can never heal when it’s closed. In a safe context, where we can practice keeping our heart open we speed up the process on our own healing and wholeness.
Lastly, I want to address the question we’re all probably thinking right about now: What happens if we keep our hearts open and still encounter a hurtful situation that makes us want to close down? How do we stay open then?
This is where the rub is. This is the h.a.r.d. part. This is like trying to find that sweet spot between taking your foot off the clutch and accelerating the gas (if you’re a seasoned standard driver, try to remember the days when this was hard…because it sounds easier than it is when you’re first learning). The tension between open and closed is where we live a large percentage of the time. There are about a dozen things pelting your brain at once in that moment and you have mere seconds to make a decision between “stay open” and “shut down”. This is the part I said earlier that separates the men from the boys. Choose to bear down in this defining moment. Tough it through that self-protective impulse to hang a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign in the front shop window of your heart and remain open anyway. This is where true strength emerges. It’s where heroes of the heart are born. It’s the moment where flowers are thrown and you’re kissing babies’ foreheads. How we respond in this moment is what either launches us forward or sets us back. This is that moment of potential glory where we can jet into hyper drive and take the Millennial Falcon of our heart to the next galaxy of personal growth by choosing to defy fear, stare it down and remain open in the face of impending pain.
This is where relationships are so vital. When we are in high-trust relationships, we have someone to help us push through that moment and choose to remain open. We can access these relationships to help us remain firm in our resolve to keep our hearts open regardless of the response we receive from someone else. We also have the ability to affect and influence, by our words and actions, the way we open others’ hearts or shut them down. That’s another post for another day but while on the subject, munch on that thought a little.
Remaining open hearted doesn’t mean we won’t feel hurt or be disappointed or receive an undesired outcome. It simply means we will have a stronger resiliency to bounce back from it, heal faster and move forward without having to work at re-opening our hearts again. It’s easier to maintain an open heart in the long run than it is to open the heart we’ve shut down. We all have experienced some degree of heart closure as it’s impossible to perfectly and consistently keep our hearts open 100% of the time. But the quicker we realize when we have shut down and ask the Father to help us open our hearts again, the quicker and easier it is to remain open.
Keeping an open heart means remaining open to new options and possible outcomes. It’s about honestly owning our thoughts, feelings, hopes, and desires. It’s a place of beautiful transparency. It’s a place of authenticity, being present and engaging wholeheartedly with those we encounter. It’s letting people really see who we are, with no masks or facades and no pretense. It requires risking the vulnerability of being known. It’s about pushing past former relational baggage and connecting with people in the present as we are now. It’s about facing pain and rejection and countering it with love and understanding. This is the open-hearted road less traveled. This is real life-on-life, relationship-transforming stuff.
This is an ongoing, lifelong, daily uphill challenge toward personal growth & development. I guarantee you that it will be hard. This is the Olympics for your heart. It will require mental toughness, a determination to deepen your relationships, a commitment to personal authenticity and a lot of patience with the learning curve. Hopefully, in taking these steps toward living with a heart wide open, protected by healthy and loving boundaries, we can all move a little closer to that end of the spectrum. Life will always be hard, but let’s choose the hard life that makes us more open, more free, more authentic and more involved in the lives of those in the world around us.
May G-d give you lavish grace in learning to live with a heart wide open.
(1) Artscroll Tanakh