Gather together a group of neuroscientists and ask them to describe the brain and the majority of them will likely say something sterile and scientific like, ‘It’s a ball of goo held together by magic’. Ask the same question to a philosopher or a theologian and they may answer with something along the lines of the mind being a union of the heart and the brain. Throw the word ‘soul’ into the mix and things get chippy. Some philosophers scoff at the idea of a soul and some thelogians scoff at philosophy. It all seems to even out somehow in sort of a perpetual stalemate of gradually increasing narrow-mindedness. Personally, I can’t/won’t argue with the goo/magic hypothesis, but I’ve always leaned more toward the philosophical and, to this end, tend to agree with the union concept.
Lydia Davis wrote a poem called Head, Heart that floored me the first time I read it. I’m not usually a poetry groupie, but this constitutes an exception:
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.
Without proper caution, words like these can set one to thinking deeply about things better left unthought. I can’t blame Lydia Davis for this, easy though it might be. The fact is that for the last six years around my birthday, contemplation of the state of my own head/heart union has been mandatory. It may not seem like the kind of thing that warrants conscious contemplation, but for some people, this union is perpetually in some varying state of peril. Her poem was an innocent bystander to my effort in Xtreme navel gazing and it ended up adding color to a normally very black and white endeavor.
My head is my heart’s over-protective big brother. It accepted this post very early in the game and in short order became an expert at detaching itself and its sibling from the world. There was never any negotiation; heart was in trouble and, yes, head really was all heart had. It’s a common refrain of mine that my head has reached down and plucked me from the abyss many times. Over time, this plucking has been complicated by the fact that my head decides when to pluck. Sometimes it just leaves me there for awhile to brood and sort of meditate on how I got there. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing; it can be enormously instructive. Nevertheless, at times it can be a bit of dick, frankly.
Dick or not, though, I realize that it has my best interests in, well….mind. The goal has always been to protect me from myself and others and at this it’s excelled. The side effect of my head keeping my heart safe has been a kind of emotional isolation that results in my remaining a perpetually detached observer. I’ve been to a lot of weddings and funerals over the years. Thankfully, the former still outnumbers the latter, but time (and war, sadly) has a way of evening the score. At weddings, I’m happy, but never too happy. At funerals, I’m the stoic one that comforts the more demonstrative folks. I’m afraid that eventually I’ll have been asked to eulogize everyone I know due to the fact that I’m the only one capable of doing so without being interrupted by pesky emotions. But buried deep down, there sits jealousy on the part of both my head and my heart. The latter for the married couple because it remembers what love feels like, and the former for the deceased because the thought of being released from its self-imposed cognitive concentration camp seems genuinely comforting.
And the conundrum is in that comfort: My head knows what it’s doing to my heart, sees the folly in it all, and worries about whether it’s too late in the game to change. Heart understands and empathizes; it appreciates the fact that it owes every beat in recent years to head’s ability to endure things that heart couldn’t at the time. It’s a very complicated relationship marked by one not wanting to disappoint the other. Hope, they agree, is a powerful thing, which also makes it a dangerous thing to see slipping away. People ask me how it feels to be a year older. ‘The same as it always has’, I answer in the most unassuming way possible. I feel like I’m trapped on the inside looking out and the view is the same as it’s always been. Head fears that after years of neglect, heart may do something rash or, worse, nothing at all. Heart knows. It’s nothing new.
Heart is all head has. Help, heart. Help head.
Sir @ January 25, 2010