A (small) personal joke of long standing: I’m a German Lutheran farm boy. We practice a more subtle affection.
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Jill said it was the physical manifestation of my reserved nature.
Misha said she finds it interesting, how we feel, think, act might affect our health in specific, correlative ways.
Metaphysical pondering aside, here’s what I know: My body creates sticky, gooey gunk that wants to clog up the inside of my arteries. This was discovered by a crack team of cardiologists at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. To say I had a heart attack is imprecise. To say I didn’t is splitting hairs.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
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A coworker and I were joking about my lack of demonstrated affection. He said, “How are we going to open that heart?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. A surgeon put in a stint and still – nothing.”
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Whether or not my metaphorical heart caused my physical heart troubles, I can’t say but Jill and Misha are not wrong. My metaphorical heart also has issues with being clogged. Or at least it’s not open. Not very widely.
I know the theology. God is love. We are conduits of God’s love. I even believe it.
I am a hypocrite.
My heart closes quickly. It’s like a hermit crab that retreats into the shell at the first sign of danger. It’s so quick, it can’t involve a thought process. It’s reflex.
That’s how it is with my heart.
Except the danger isn’t always real. Often. Usually.
But once snapped shut, it’s hard to open. Maybe if I could find a way to discern the relative danger more slowly, engage more thought, less reflex . . .
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As a kid, I had issues befriending my body. I was fat. I was slow. I was not athletic or good with my hands in that manual labor sort of way.
I was good at school. I made good grades. I came to value my mind over my body.
In this dichotomy, there was definite antagonism.
Then in college (as a theater major) I took some dance classes. I loved them. I was even fairly decent in them. But there were other issues. I didn’t particularly like being perceived as gay, most likely because I didn’t perceive myself as gay. Male dancers are often perceived as gay. So I let dance go.
In my mid-thirties, I realized, screw it, I liked dance and I found a wonderful teacher and took class for a few years. Being out of the closet and dancing and eventually making some movement-based performance pieces, I was finally loving my body.
Then my heart has to go and betray me.
This pissed me off. A lot. In my own German Lutheran sort of way, which is to say a bit repressed, but really angry.
It’s body/mind antagonism 2.0.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. This bitterness is leaving stains.
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I exchanged emails with Misha while drafting this essay. I told her about the anger. She replied, “I’d often thought of that whole concept, ‘heart disease.’ Are we all simply dying from broken hearts?”
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Dare I get started?
First, I know I’m not unique. Anyone who has survived the first grade knows something of heartbreak. A toy that breaks, a rejected Valentine, a death in the family – any number of things happen very early in life to teach us of loss and unfulfilled desire. There are a million ways for the heart to break and the ones particular to us are not unique to us.
Having said that.
How is my heart broken? Let me count the ways.
Mama and Daddy, both dead.
So many books, so little time.
That alcoholic liar.
That closet case (or two or three).
A church that doesn’t quite know what to do with me, a religious gay man.
Straight friends (who, I’m convinced, sincerely love me) who don’t get how heartbreaking the church can be for GLBT Christians.
And those are just the ones I’m willing to put out there in public. There are subsets to many of the above, specifics that I’m also unwilling to air in public.
But perhaps that is enough of a list for our purposes here, to reveal some brokenheartedness, over a wide range of things.
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Another old personal joke: How is it that some people end decades-long relationships and within months (if not weeks) are in a new relationship? It takes me months to get over a disappointing date.
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Some people function better with all these layers of heartbreak. Unless everyone is as dysfunctional as I am and are as good as or better than I am at acting functional.
I shouldn’t rule that out.
What I mean to say is that some people experience heartbreak and their hearts are broken open. With these broken, open hearts, they become loving, generous, holy people.
I am not one of those people.
My heart breaks and it immediately develops this hard, immobile scar tissue. Callouses, maybe. There’s soft tissue underneath, to be sure, and it still feels and will bleed if cut into.
But the outside? It’s tough, like a shield. At first glance, you might be able to discern the living tissue beneath.
To love as much as possible is to risk heartbreak as much as possible.
I’m not so good with risk.
And so even if behind those callouses and scar tissue, I still love some, it’s not often visible. It doesn’t make it beyond the hard shield to become demonstrative. If love is kept behind a wall where no one can see it much less feel it, it’s as good as never being there at all.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. Scrape away the hardness. Help me let out love and risk receiving it as well.
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In conclusion—I’m inconclusive. II can’t say if my calloused, metaphorical heart is responsible for my gooey, clogged, physical heart, although it makes me wonder if cultures wherein the metaphorical center of emotion is the stomach have a higher incident of stomach cancer, ulcer, acid reflux.
I don’t know if practicing more loving gestures will lower my cholesterol. I don’t know if risking heartbreak will help me live longer. I suspect lowered cholesterol and longer life are not the highest reasons for loving more.
What I do know is that, two years after the “heart event,” I’m still learning how to deal with it. (Perhaps writing this essay is part of the “dealing.”)
I do know that, despite my best efforts, I have landed in a congregation that has worked its way into my heart and certain people therein are massaging the callouses, probably more than they know.
I do know that I hold certain beliefs. Like incarnation. I believe, as Rudolf Bultmann said, “I do not have a body. I am a body.” Having never had an out-of-body experience, I’m left to admit that all my identity, all my sensations (physical, emotional, spiritual) happen in my body, maybe because I am a body.
That includes that odd, faint sensation under my arm that sent me to a doctor who found that gooey stuff in that artery. In fact, before I got angry at my body, I even attributed my recent friendship with my body as the reason for why I was sensitive to that underarm twinge. I’m left to conclude that I have a reason for a physical body that loves my – our – life enough to give me even so subtle a hint.
Another belief: The power of God rests in the weakest places. I believe God uses the unlikely, the unfit, the broken to expose the impotence of the powerful. I’m hardly crippled by this event. You wouldn’t know from looking at me that I have heart disease.
But mortality has a way of increasing humility and even if humility looks weak, I do believe it is the power of God (Philippians 2:5-11). And if my heroes, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, are correct, humility is the way to love.
I do know that the anger will only exacerbate all the issues, and even as I try to cling to it, I am feeling some movement in it. God is present in the anger, even taking the brunt of some of it, but taking it and taking it away. It’s not happening all at once, but it’s a journey. Spirit is getting caught in my sails and so I am propelled forward, however inconclusive the destination.
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Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a breath that is less angry.
Keep me close. Don’t let me go. Keep your Spirit behind me, pushing me. Restore the joy of my embodiment, which you claim as good and worth redeeming.
And dissipate all that gooey, sticky, clogging crap from my arteries.
Central Texas native Neil Ellis Orts grew up on a farm on the Lee/Bastrop county line. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Texas State University, a master’s of divinity from Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago. He has published fiction and arts writing, including the 2004 novel Hidden Gifts. He also makes short performance pieces and has presented them in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.