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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

If hearts were on sleeves...

My Why audio version of this blog available here.

A couple of weekends ago I was chatting to my brother-in-law who is an anaesthetist and works with hearts. The fancy name for this is cardiology. 'Cardi' meaning heart, 'ology' meaning the study of. And it struck me that on a day-to-day basis he literally gets to see people’s hearts. He gets to see the very thing that keeps us humans alive.

Now, on a medical level the heart is a pump, beating to a steady rhythm to send blood and oxygen through our body. It’s an organ that we all need, can’t do without. We all have one, some people even have someone else’s. The first human-to-human transplant was done as far back as 1967. That must have been a pretty amazing day. And there is currently a man in America who has lived a two weeks with a genetically modified heart from a pig. Isn’t it amazing what man can work out how to do? (Ethical issues aside for those of you with questions about the pig).

And like everything in the body, the heart can get sick in many ways (excuse my basic terms for these); it can beat wrong, it can lose it’s rhythm, it can stop, it can get blocked, it can get it’s pressures all wrong, it can become weak, it can get diseased, and the saddest sounding one of all, it can fail.

But more often in our lives - we hear the heart referred to as a symbol of love. There are a lot of theories as to why this is and when I searched for an answer and it started going back as far as the Ancient Greeks I decided there probably is no definitive answer I could find quickly.

As a side note, I did discover that the Ancient Romans believed a vein went directly from the heart to the fourth finger on the left hand (we now know this is incorrect) and this is why they placed a ring on that finger of the bride to represent marriage. I thought that was very sweet - nothing more attractive than a big old long vein!

Then there’s all the ways the word ‘heart’ has made it into our day to day expressions. Observe this natty paragraph I just wrote to put them all together:

Chris has such a big heart, he’s young at heart, after my own heart, a heart of gold, not a heart of stone, he’s all heart, but at heart he’s unwilling to bare his heart, maybe he has a bleeding heart, which breaks my heart. I know him by heart, he stole my heart, and will always be dear to my heart. I don’t have the heart to tell him, even though it would do his heart good. Even though I’m faint of heart, he found a way into my heart, and I will follow my heart, even if it hardens my heart, because my heart is set on one thing, and my heart goes out to him. My heart is in my mouth, even though I know my heart is in the right place, when I get to the heart of the matter, our hearts and minds are aligned, and my heart’s desire, what makes my heart skip a beat, even though it also makes my heart heavy, is that I cannot deny the affairs of my heart. I mustn’t lose heart, because from the bottom of my heart, in my heart of hearts, even if it melts my heart or nearly gives me a heart attack, my heart bleeds for him to open his heart, and out of the kindness of his heart, pour out his heart, and not strike fear into my heart. I cross my heart and I must take heart, and not take it to heart, I will eat my heart out, to my heart’s content, to warm the cockles of my heart, and not let my heart sink.

Did you realise we used that word so often? And that’s not even all of the expressions I found.

Sometimes we reference the heart when we see someone who’s really passionate about a particular interest. It can be said of my mum that she has a ‘heart for Bangladesh’ as she works to eliminate blindness in children out there through her charity Vision for Bangladesh (quick plug there!). It could also be said of my dad (and my husband) that they have a heart for muffins!

And so many of our English words come from links to the heart. Susie Dent, an English lexicographer, that I’ve referenced before, tweeted these word origins a few years ago:

Courage, came from the meaning ‘strength of the heart’.

Cordial, means ‘from the heart’.

Discord, means ‘hearts apart’.

Concord, means ‘hearts together’.

So I started thinking about the physical hearts that are on show when a surgeon opens a chest, and the un-tangible thing that is portrayed as the centre of us and everything we hold dear.

One expression caught my attention most, a description of someone who doesn’t hide their emotions; wearing your heart on your sleeve. Used mostly as a negative term. ‘Oh, so-and-so, yes she wears her heart on her sleeve, that one.’

When a patient is on the operating table and their chest is cracked open to expose their heart, there’s not much in life more vulnerable than that moment. You know you’re in a vulnerable position when just an ill-timed sneeze with a hot cup of tea could literally end your life.

So is having your heart on display a good thing? Or a bad thing? Not the physical heart, the metaphorical heart. Having your physical heart on display is definitely a bad thing, you should really see someone about that.

I think it probably has it’s good and bad points. Let’s walk it out…

Imagine we all wear our hearts on our sleeves, let’s imagine it’s the real physical heart, but don’t worry, it’s all plumbed in right and still keeping us alive, it just happens to sit on top of our clothes somehow for all to see. Pumping away, quite happy. This heart represents everything we’ve come to know the heart as, all your emotions, feelings, passions and desires - they’re all there for people to see. Initially I imagined this was a bit like walking around with no trousers on - people are gonna stare! So let’s just imagine it’s the norm for us all for a moment.

So here we all are, walking around with a beating lump of flesh on our sleeve, perfectly normal.

What’s the down side of this scenario? (apart from the big bit of flesh on your sleeve). Everyone can see each other’s hearts. Awkward if you’re in love with someone who doesn’t know, or if you’re trying to hide your passion for stamps. If you’ve got bigger issues you’re trying to ignore and don’t want to deal with, then having others constantly pointing out that ‘you might want to get that looked at’ is going to cause friction somewhere along the line. So you might start trying to hide it, avoiding people, becoming defensive, growing angry. And if you lash out, there’s a chance you’ll damage someone else’s heart in the process, and this might cause guilt or a responsibility to fix it. Having a damaged heart on view also makes you a target for those that might want to abuse your vulnerability or take advantage of you, knowing you’re not in a good place. And if you realise that, it creates stress and mistrust. All this can elicit strong responses from others as they respond to your emotions, which is hard on you, and them.

Flip side of this; it’s easier to assess the health of your heart, you can see that it’s the right pinky/purpley colour, it’s beating as it’s supposed to and there’s blood moving in and out and it looks like it’s doing it’s thing. With it on view like this it’s easy to check the health of it and notice very early if something doesn’t seem right. Because your heart is on view you can’t suppress your emotions, meaning that mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically it’s healthier for you. This can free up the tension and anxiety we carry, because we’re naturally sharing our feelings with others, and being open about how we feel helps communication and builds empathy on both sides. If we don’t let other people know how we feel, we won’t get the support we need. It’s even been said that sharing in this way is more likely to get your needs met in life, so you’re less likely to adopt addictive behaviours like overeating, gambling, drugs, physical self harm etc. As my Grandma used to say; ‘There’s nothing for the dumb, dear’ (sadly the word dumb, which used to mean ‘unable to speak’ has been twisted to mean ‘stupid’ so that phrase will no doubt be seen as rude and die out now.) But she was saying; if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And there’s something to be said for that with emotions too. Wearing your heart on your sleeve means you don’t need to ask people, they can already see what you need.

On the other side though, if your heart is on your sleeve, it’s going to get bumped, scratched, dented, bruised and battered. Someone in the office will eventually accidentally papercut it, someone on the tube will get thrown into you when the train stops abruptly and it will bruise, the rose bush you have to brush past to get your bike into the shed will scratch it, the cold will freeze it, the heat will burn it, and annoyingly little children will eventually poke it and it will get sticky.

So it needs some sort of protection.

So someone designs the Heart Defender, or Heart Protector, or Heart Box or something. I can see the ads now: ‘Protecting your heart from attack.’

This box can be opaque so you can hide your damaged heart away, or it can be see-through to allow others see in. And they’ll be the option to conveniently hide your heart away under chintz, ditsy, floral or checked fabric.

All of a sudden everyone’s hearts are hidden under marketing and people are able to go around looking on top of the world, with a heart that’s dying under a geometric pattern.

I did another blog previously called ‘Guard your heart, not just your hair’. This focused on the importance of being wise with what we let in and out of our hearts. I think this follows on from that. Our hearts do need protection of some kind, it’s not good to just have them out and about flapping in the wind for all to see and for the bruises to follow, but equally locking them away so no one can see anything is not healthy either. It makes it too easy to hide what we’re really going through and turn to other unhealthy ways of coping.

Overall I think sharing our hearts is a good thing but very difficult for some of us. Sadly, we can’t just ask someone to open our chest and take a look at our actual heart, assess the damage, see what needs fixing and tell us what to do. We have to work it out for ourselves and sometimes just even getting in touch with our own hearts is really hard.

Personally, I’ve found this a difficult journey to navigate. Being open about how I feel all the time doesn’t help me to always move forward and strengthen myself. If I’m faced with a situation where my heart is sad because I don’t have my own children, but I’m around someone celebrating theirs, what good does it do to show that sadness and squash their joy? Yet, if I always hide those feelings and never let them out, what will fester away inside me undealt with, that will no doubt appear in another way?

As with everything in life it's a balance. But overall I think you're better off wearing your heart closer to the surface. Not buried down deep, and not out in the elements, but just under your skin, so people can see it beating, can see what is written on it, see if it needs help and know when it’s failing. And for times or situations when you need to guard it a bit more closely, have some Heart Armour, Harmour if you will, but don’t leave it on all the time.

Only you will know which end of the spectrum you sit on. Do you need to bring your heart in a bit more because it’s causing you pain when you put everything out there all the time for others to deal with? Do you need to bring your heart to the surface a bit more and just show one person, or a small part of it to start the journey towards a healthier heart? Maybe your heart needs a defibrillator right now, and this is the jolt you need to get back on the path you were supposed to follow. Maybe your heart is yearning for something, or longing to do something you’re denying it, and now is the time to listen. Maybe you need more, maybe it’s full blown heart surgery - and that needs a specialist, so you need to go and seek the help you need that you’ve been putting off. What changes do you need in your heart?

I’m not going to tell you to follow your heart entirely. Emotions can’t always be trusted and they can rule the heart.

I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. Vincent Van Gogh

Use your mind as well. Your mind knows what your heart needs. It’s probably the thing that you don’t want to do right now.

And there are other factors to consider. How you were brought up, how your parents dealt with these things, what generation you are, what gender you are, what your circles of friends look like, all these things built the unique character of you, and so your heart. A nd how you deal with it is completely unique too. Which can be a bit frustrating, as there’s no one way to fix it, but it’s also a comfort, because it means what you’re feeling is something no one else has experienced or been through, so it’s valid, and the right support will help you to the place you want to be, whether that’s doing the work alone, or with others, or professionals.

Sometimes the heart leads you places that don’t make a lot of sense, but the mind has a peace about it, they’re not at war with one another, and that can lead you to some beautiful places.

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. Blaise Pascal

Starting this podcast and finishing the novel I’ve written, hasn’t made me a penny (no reason it should have), which will seem a weird thing to be working on full time for some. But I love meeting people all around the world through the podcast, I love the privilege of hearing their stories of loss and the way they let me into the pain in their hearts and the joy they’ve found through their losses, I love writing fiction, I love writing other people’s hearts and their pain and triumphs, I love expression through words, I’ve discovered these are the things that make my heart sing. And it’s worth more than money to me (although I definitely want some of that at some point. Girl cannot live on bread alone). What makes your heart sing? What is it screaming at you right now? What are you ignoring? A healthy heart is important, and only you can know what yours needs to feel truly healthy.

I have a Nelson Mandela quote on the wall in my writing room that I’ve had for years. It’s been faded by the sun, but it said everything about why I’ve always wanted to write, and it mentions the heart:

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special. Nelson Mandela

I believe great writing always has a great heart behind it, I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good heart in a character without having one inside the writer somewhere, even if it’s buried too far deep for others to see, it somehow finds a way out through the pen. That’s why I love to look up who wrote the script or screenplay for characters I’m taken in with on TV and in films - I know I’ve seen a glimpse of their heart, and it’s very special.

I’ll finish with a quote from Helen Keller who was deaf and blind but learned to communicate, and said this:

I used to wish that I could see pictures with my hands as I do statues, but now I do not often think about it because my dear Father has filled my mind with beautiful pictures, even of things I cannot see. If the light were not in your eyes, dear Mr. Brooks, you would understand better how happy your little Helen was when her teacher explained to her that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but just felt in the heart. Every day I find out something which makes me glad. Helen Keller

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