Resolve to Know the Capacity of the Human Heart

First, a wall of tears. Beyond that was the warped and fragmented landscape of morning rush hour, with its brake lights glowing red and streaky, turn signals made murky with crying. Both hands, white-knuckled, clutched the steering wheel desperately, and amid the frantic carousel of doomsday prophecies whirling with dizzying momentum inside my head, only the most basic governing principles emerged in my endeavor to reason: stay inside the lines; don’t crash. How quickly a simple baseline ultrasound can unhinge an already threadbare IVF patient, especially if she’s fresh on the heels of her sixth early pregnancy loss and standing at the precipice of dropping a five-figure sum at the most expensive clinic in the country to finally, FINALLY get an answer or, daresay, a child from this otherwise Sisyphean struggle; especially if the nurse practitioner at the Podunk local clinic was too lazy that morning to sweep the ovary properly and count ALL the resting follicles, casually delivering the verdict “Two” in response to the question “How many?” and crushing meticulously planned dreams with gross complacency. I ultimately landed at a Whole Foods, eager to park and dial up the Husband on the Bluetooth for another round of “Hey, Honey? Why don’t you climb down from that ledge?” when I wended my way along behind a gym-bound, middle-aged blonde woman driving a white Mercedes SUV. When she pulled up to the curb with her right signal flashing, it all seemed harmless enough to cut the wheel and go around her until, that is, an elderly man with a cane materialized in the middle of the now visible crosswalk. I stopped short, disoriented, to let him pass when the other driver’s wild gesticulating created an alarming flurry in my periphery, followed by a face contorted with rage and screaming silently through window glass her assault on my apparent transgression. Emotional, easily baited, I yelled back my defense, which likewise bounced in futility around the cabin of my Suburu until it lost its inertia, and I pulled away with hands shaking so hard I could barely dial the numbers on the phone. I called my husband. I sobbed the angst into exhaustion. I stumbled halfheartedly into the store as if blown by the wind of some vague impulse to busy myself with tedium–grocery shopping, a manageable distraction–the wounds of the ill-timed road rage incident still smarting.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, it starts with the observation that driving is one of those things that has an uncanny power to blot out the noblest of our human qualities and reduce us to a horde of grunting jungle animals, clawing for territory, jockeying for position, viciously defending what’s ours. As I wandered that store, irresolutely shoving poblano peppers into a plastic bag, my thoughts centered on the following probable truth: If she had any idea what I was going through, she would be ashamed of herself. But let’s be honest here for just a second because my response was pretty ugly too, which begs its own examination. Why do we act like this? Can we make a different choice because, after all, we’ve all got stories like these.

In my view, the “gifts” of infertility and pregnancy loss are sparse. I always hated the suggestion that this was all part of some grand and fruitful design, so despite what the Pollyannas of the world might naively offer in a clumsy moment of discomfort-dodging, I won’t patronize you with a trite list of silver linings. However, I would like to concede one cherished, hard-won development of my own, and that is a deep and intimate brand of compassion born only from the personal experience of suffering. Example: I woke up one particularly weepy morning, digesting the abysmal fertilization report from our final IVF cycle, listening to the traffic outside the giant windows of the high-rise apartment we rented in Denver, and generally feeling sorry for myself. A video my aunt had posted appeared in my Newsfeed, so I watched it, again hungry for a distraction from my troubles.

I was so uncharacteristically unraveled by the tears of this poor castaway–humiliated, hungry, forced to beg for survival on the streets of an unforgiving world–and my own tears started to stream in ribbons from already puffy eyes down swollen cheeks, thinking of his words, “No matter what people think about me, I know I’m a human first.” I thought of the woman in the parking lot, her rage, perhaps also rooted in pain. I felt the echoes of David Foster Wallace’s call to arms,

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that…some of these people actually have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do…It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars–compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.

The innate knowing of what it means to hurt has given me an ability to consider in a whole new light the frustrated stranger in the adjacent lane of the highway or the chapped-skinned vagrant starving and freezing on the church steps or the fragile woman in the neighboring chair of the waiting room with downcast eyes and a shared fellowship of heartache and fear because everybody hurts. It is a proverbial “iron string” to which “every heart vibrates.” Dr. Brene Brown said in her own discussion of compassion,

Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.

The experiences of mourning children I’ll never meet, swimming in the abject humiliation of barrenness, living with a longing that sometimes feels like it will split me wide open until my guts spill all over the floor–these make up the nurturing underground spring by which compassion grows and blooms. It’s thorny and uninviting and hard, but therein lies the essence of our humanity–the conscious decision to step outside the cloistered shell of our own appetites and baggage, plug into the electric current of another human being and say, “You are not alone, my friend. Take my hand so we can walk together.” Resolve to know this. It is perhaps our greatest gift.

***

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It’s National Infertility Awareness Week. Read more about an affliction that affects 1 in 8.

15 thoughts on “Resolve to Know the Capacity of the Human Heart

  1. I didn’t watch the video. I was too afraid of breaking down in a puddle of tears in my cubicle. Hell, I’m trying to blink back tears from just reading your post. Very well said and very true. The world needs much more empathy.

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  2. That DFW killed himself breaks my heart in ten separate ways. That graduation speech he did made me cry. If only we were all a little more like that. That asshole, dying.

    Sorry.

    Also love the “empathy is a choice” quote. Every time someone asks me that “how would you change the world” nonsense, I always say I would magically make people have more empathy and compassion.

    I hope you’ve found as much comfort here as I have. This community has kept me going.

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    • When I read his speech in its entirety it was really noticeable how often he talks about people being miserable and depressed and wanting to “shoot yourself in the head.” I thought–how personal this message was and how he tried to live it but couldn’t beat the sadness 😦 I’m glad he left his words behind for us to chew on. And, yes, the support of this community is comforting. No one likes to struggle alone.

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  3. Pingback: Man’s Humanity to Man | Dr. Gerald Stein - Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

  4. “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

    I especially loved this quote from Dr. Rene Brown. It’s not only a vulnerable choice, it’s also a painful choice.

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  5. Empathy is so so so very important. We are all humans, and we all share a connection, even though we like to segregate ourselves in little warm boxes with others who are like us but apart from those who aren’t like us, making snap judgements on the occupants of the other little boxes from our little warm seats, trying not to look inside those other boxes because it might be uncomfortable or hard. You’re right, when one experiences pain, it makes it so much easier to recognize and hold out your hand to the pain of others, no matter what the source of the pain is.

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