A Heart of Stone (My Own)

A bleeding heart?

59 were killed, and many more wounded on October 1st in Las Vegas. It was a massacre. I heard about the shooting the day it occurred, and I was hauntingly…

unmoved.

I knew that what happened was terrible. I felt pangs of sadness at a memorial Mass. But I didn’t feel my heart break. In the days following the shooting, I was able live with relative normality. Friends of mine expressed outrage at what happened. What concerned me, though, was how flat I felt. I pushed away the nausea of that recognition by trying to remind myself that just because I didn’t “feel” something, didn’t mean I didn’t care.

Despite this reminder, there was a certain anxiety that lurked in my heart about why I didn’t react more strongly. I wondered, what if I’m not as good of a person as I like to think I am? What if I just want to be? What if at the end of the day I only care about myself?

***

A few years ago, I spent four months working with struggling students at a middle school. In one of the first classes I sat in on, a student in particular stood out. He got mad at the teacher and completely shut down for the rest of class. Something was going on beyond mere middle school attitude.

Soon I learned the reason. Both of his parents died before he was 13, and since then he was understandably having a difficult time coping. I was shocked, feeling completely inadequate in my ability to understand his situation. But again, what felt even worse was how little I was emotionally affected by his story. I felt cold.

One night after school I began to feel nauseous – the same nausea I felt again after Las Vegas. I did care about this boy, but there was some sort of roadblock keeping me from letting his story into my own life. So, I did what I do when I’m looking for answers – I went to  pray.

I walked into the house chapel and let myself settle into this boy’s shoes. I was worried at first that I would conjure up emotion just because I wanted to feel it, but I went forward anyway. I slowly began to imagine losing one parent, and then the other. My parents – the people that fed me, talked to me, were my whole life – gone. I couldn’t go anywhere to talk to them, and they wouldn’t say anything else to me, even if I did something wrong. My heart wrenched with the strain of needing to reach out to my parents, filled with the instinctual urge to run to them and rest in their arms. But then to have nowhere to go with that, feeling completely alone. I could not depend on them –  it was impossible, it was violent, it was cruel.

My sense of separation from this boy’s life shattered. I felt my heart trembling and was seared with a very real pain. The agony I felt in prayer over this kind of loss merely touched the surface of what this boy actually experienced. That thought struck me with the force of its blunt truth and horror. There was no shield to adequately protect him from this, he simply had to bear it. My heart broke.

The next time I saw him, these same emotions arose in my awareness and I was overwhelmed with the desire to care for him in any way I could. The compassion I felt was not because I recognized that I should be there for him. It was from a much deeper desire for his own well being – that I might somehow assuage his pain or, at least, be a loving presence in his life. It was about him, not me. I felt as true to myself as I ever had.

***

As I think about Las Vegas, I remember this student. I recall that my contemplation of his life was not an experience that was self-contrived. It did not come principally from some narcissistic urge to be benevolent, or my own self-preoccupation. It was something that I was drawn to by something both outside of myself and also within my deepest self. It was a beckoning from God.  

I needed only to heed this beck and call and choose to let others into my own consciousness. And having done this, I see that I truly don’t care only for myself. Underneath the dormant, stony shell of my heart exists a passionate energy waiting to break out in love. I trust in this love present in me, and am no longer possessed by the fear or preoccupation about whether I am good or not. All that is left is love itself.

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