Guard your heart, not just your hair
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
You cannot prevent birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair. — Chinese Proverb
Off the back of recording Episode 3 of The Silent Why, where my husband and I share our childless journey, I've been pondering ways we've prevented the birds of sorrow from building nests in our hair.
One piece of advice came to mind first, and strongest: 'Guard your heart'.
An important concept for facing any loss or grief, and it actually originates from a proverb in the Bible (a proverb is a saying that reflects either a statement of truth or a piece of advice, and you'll see them everywhere from many countries and cultures).
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. — Proverbs 4:23
This particular one actually plays against the adage that many of us hear regularly: 'follow your heart'.
First of all, I want to define 'guard', because it could be misinterpreted here to mean shutting off your heart completely and not letting anything in, but the word 'guard' means: 'to protect from damage or harm.' Which might seem easy: i.e. guarding your house from harm = let in family and friends, don't let in burglars and murderers. But when it comes to your heart it's not always that simple to recognise danger and harm. (Even as I write this, I'm thinking that with some family and friends, it's not always wise to let them in the house either!).
The original Hebrew word for 'heart' in this proverb is 'lib·bə·ḵā', and translated it's a lot more than just an organ that pumps blood around the body; it means the 'inner man, mind, will, heart.' This includes our feelings, emotions, understanding and reasoning. It's the very core and centre of who we are.
So, how do you guard your heart?
Well, the very act of protecting something involves action. If someone's about to stab you and your way of protecting yourself is to stand there motionless and hope it doesn't happen - I hate to break it to you - but you're gonna get stabbed. And it's not a one-off action either, guarding something is a continual effort. They don't remove the security from the Crown Jewels just because they managed to stop one attempt at someone stealing them.
But it's also important to remember that guarding something isn't just keeping bad things out, it's also protecting the good things inside. Stopping someone from stabbing you, is protecting your life. Guarding the Crown Jewels is keeping safe precious valuable history and unique, priceless gems. And for you, well you're protecting; your character, your love, your joy, your hope, your peace, your dreams, and all the lovely things inside you, and most of all - your identity. And I might even add another one on there - your Hermans.
There are many ways to protect your heart. Here's a few that I've found helpful over the years:
1. Work out what is true and what is not true. We all know things we tell ourselves that aren't true, whether it's an irrational fear, like - if I get in that lift I might die (lift deaths of passengers are barely double figures each year by the way), or statements like:
If I had more time I could do _____
If I could do _____, then life would be perfect
Everything is awful
Everything is awesome (despite what the Lego song might tell you)
No one will ever love me
If I had more money/different body/right family, I'd be happy
Being around bad company won't have a negative effect on me
If I'm not always busy, people will think I'm lazy
Excess drinking/drugs/sex/food is a normal way of coping
If I don't do it, no one will
A baby/partner would make me complete.
Analyse the thoughts that dominate you and work out if they're true or if they're lies. Try to guard your heart from lies and painful words that just hurt you and take you down paths that you shouldn't be wandering. Write down the truths you know and keep them close:
I have all the time I need to be who I'm meant to be
Life isn't perfect for anyone
Life won't always be easy or great, but I can choose to to not let it affect my identity
I am worthy of being loved
I'm not expected to be perfect
A work/rest balance is important in life
I'm a beautiful, unique creation
There are people waiting to help me if I reach out.
2. Don't let your heart and head drift apart. This might sound counter-cultural, but there's a danger in following our feelings, especially in areas where our emotions are strong and overpowering, they rarely allow space for our mind to reiterate the truth. I'm sure we can all think of a time when we were acting irrational and someone around us pointed out a simple truth that refocused us. I know I can. And one of the ways I've tried to grow in this area, is to remember the truths I've known in my life and remind myself - it's even more powerful from your own mouth. Use your truths to realign your head and heart.
3. Remember your identity and focus on what's true. Find what makes you uniquely you, and what brings you joy, peace and truth. This will be different for everyone, and for those with a faith this will be largely rooted in who God is and the love and joy derived from that relationship. It can be harder to find that in humans because we're all broken and working out our own baggage, but for some it might be being in nature, using your gifts, participating in a sport or activity you love, music, art, a career that fulfils you. Find these things and recognise you need them in your life. They feed your heart.
No one can give you a list of things to watch out for when guarding your heart, because the things that can harm you are specific to you.
What happens if you don't guard your heart?
Well, another 'heart' proverb in the Bible says:
For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. — Proverbs 23
And the Book of Matthew says:
Whatever is in your heart, determines what you say. — Matthew 12
...and how you act. What we allow in, and out, of our heart , spills out through our words and actions to others.
One of the key takeaways for me in all this is to remember that you always have a choice in how you act, speak and think. And coming from a woman who's had PMDD (a.k.a crazy hormones!) and who has spent years trying to master the art of telling herself truths that don't feel true in the moment, I can tell you it's not easy, but it's 100% worth it.
I'll finish with an example from a few years ago.
My husband and I went on a last minute holiday in search of some sunshine (a fickle friend to the UK). Sometimes when we go away we stay in adult-only hotels, not because we don't like children, but more because it just provides us with the space to process, think, and assess where we are, without the distraction of the life we don't have. This holiday wasn't adult-only, but it was during term-time, so we assumed less children would be around, which they were. What we did not anticipate was the amount of babies we'd be surrounded by. They were everywhere! It wasn't exactly the escape we'd planned.
So it turned into one of those times when I felt faced with constant decisions to trust in our plan and our life choices, or else be broken and confused about our journey by letting the bad thoughts in. On one level I wanted to appreciate these little new people, but on another level it was a constant reminder that our life was different, and as it so often feels around others, 'less' somehow.
On the plane on the way home, we were once again surrounded by parents and children, so I chose to put my headphones on and stare out of the window at the endless blue sky. My choice? To ignore it all.
But then something happened to disrupt my choice. My husband nudged me and I turned to be faced with this:
(Parents please forgive me if this is your child, it was years ago, it's only half a face, and the chances of you reading this are 1 in a trillion anyway, so I'm taking that chance because there's no way of describing this happy little face without the photo).
However, it wasn't just the small gleeful face that I was confronted with, it was a choice: a) Ignore it and hope it retracted back to where it came from. Why should I help entertain someone else's child? Why can't the parent stop this child from interfering in our flight? Why should I be happy about something I'll never have? Why am I being forced into responding to a child when I just want to forget that we can't have a family and go on holiday? b) Smile at this little life in front of me that wants my attention, acknowledge this is the happiest face that's looked at me like that for a while, accept this might not be our child, but it was a child that was interested in me briefly. Return her joy. After all, my childlessness shouldn't be something that negatively affects her life.
It turned out the decision was less than a split second, because as the child beamed at us, we found ourselves naturally smiling back, my husband pulling funny faces to get a chuckle. The parents turned and smiled too, grateful for the momentary relief, and the decision to engage, and not ignore, blessed this little child and in return brought us unexpected smiles every time her wide eyes peered through the gap to see where we were.
If I chose to believe a lie in that moment it would have been: Interactions with children will only bring you pain and sadness. So my subsequent response would have been: shut my eyes, turn away, ignore her, and protect myself.
The truth I chose to believe: Smiling back at this little girl will bring her joy. My response: Smile back. The outcome: I was blessed by our interaction and my heart experienced something wonderful.
Of course, I know that won't always be the case, some children will have no interest in me at all. So, the way I guard my heart? Choose my interactions carefully.
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. — Philippians 4
So guard your heart, friends. Let in the good, keep out the bad. And yes it's flipping difficult, confusing and complicated, but it's worth it. Don't guard your heart poorly so you let all the bad influences just march in, and don't guard it too strictly and prevent the blessings from flowing through. Find the balance.
The birds of sorrow will always be flying around, and it's wise to stop them making nests in your hair, but don't let them nest in your heart either.