So what's the relation between the cardiac organ and the driving force of your life? The thing in your body is a muscular pump about the size of your fist that contracts 60 to 100 times a minute in order to jettison oxygen and other nutrients to all the living cells of your body, along with any papercut as soon as it opens. The thing in your...I'm not exactly sure...is a force that guides us toward what we desire while adding flavor and texture to the experience of the moment and the overarching story of life, such as the incensed depression when a TV show kills off your favorite character or the inescapable terror when having a child.
Though the layout of the human brain doesn't exactly support the heart-to-heart metaphor. The brain is ridiculously complicated, so let's simplify the discussion using Paul D. McLean's model of the Triune Brain. Important to note the Triune Model is not 100% accepted in the scientific community, but it's accepted by plenty and'll get the job done.
- You've got the brain stem there with the oldest evolutionary grey matter, regulating the foundational functions of heart rate, breathing, walking, fighting, cuddling. It's the dumb grunt brain. It just does.
- The limbic system largely holds memory, enables learning, and generates emotion. Particularly the amygdala, the human brain's ego kid, which will pump you full of more hormones than an overdevoted athlete faster than the speed of a snakebite. Road rage, temper tantrums, insatiably stupid romance. It's the real seat of emotion.
- The amygdala uses those strong emotions to hijack the neocortex, which is the mammalian brain that offers us rationality, strategy, analysis, etc. The neocortex is where all the systemic and organizational functions of the human computer built civilization using that abundance of neural sponge afforded the homo sapien (and here's to being one of 'em). The neocortex evaluates decisions and calculates odds, and then it asks the limbic system what it really wants to do, because the rational brain, despite all its coldly calculated ego, doesn't control us like our emotional brains do. Sometimes their like a first mate on a ship trying to steer it in a thunderstorm. In decision making, sometimes the neocortex wins; sometimes the limbic system wins. Everyone has different percentages for how much one wins over the other. Again, that control's not a bad skill to develop.
We think of champion athletes and survivors of illnesses as having needed great heart to overcome their challenge, whereas someone who is caring and compassionate to his or her close ones as having a big heart. A person charitable to strangers, animals, or the planet is equipped with an open heart--as though the body's blood-pumping motor also fuels the motivations and attractions of one's life. Quitters have little heart: weak hearts pump less oxygen to less living cells, keeping less of them alive. The loveless are broken-hearted, wondering if their internal furnace will ever again alight for another, or if it's coals will be stoked no longer, doomed beyond repair.
Hearts want to be together. They want to understand each other, to enjoy the journey together. And even when we soak them in booze, score them with scars, stain them with smoke, or sink them with desire, they still want to collect together like fireflies, they want to beat on each other through chests pressed together.
Our irrational mind has discovered behaviors to help us hide from that loneliness. The media makes us feel connected and the self-medication helps us feel distracted. When applied responsibly (which for me always means as wide a circle of responsibility as you can), these things are helpful ways to sustain emotional balance. Sometimes an escape is warranted. But when we overindulge in our defense mechanisms, they ease the pain and ennui in diminishing returns until you still feel bad and maybe now have a bad habit.
Discipline and balance--and having compassion for yourself while exercising them--are skills that should be practiced to sustain a fulfilling emotional life. For as long as your heart can pump, anyway.
For as long as it can? For as long as it wants to? For as long as it's restless, wants more, isn't finished, has the juice? For how long?
In an essay titled "Joyas Voladoras", writer Brian Doyle says, "Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old."
Personally, if the metaphor's true, and the symbol equals the organ, I'll take those two billion metaphysical heartbeats. Or maybe the metaphor is way off proportionally. Maybe two billion clicks of the ticker really buys you four billion moments of life, or ten billion bits of love, or forty billion bolts of will. Maybe the heart in our chest can project a light on our unseen selves wider than edges can stretch.
Could be truth, could be idealism, could be my neocortex once again overmisunderstanding something my heart can't articulate, could be "could be" doesn't matter. But maybe that's the only real disconnect in the metaphor of the heart in my chest and the heart in my soul: One heart has limits because it exists in a reality of limits. I'm not sure the other one does.