I often think of King Lear’s question. As he shelters in a hovel from the storm which rages not only among the elements but in his mind, he contemplates how cruel humanity can be and asks:
Is there any cause in nature makes these hard hearts?
It’s not really a question but a cry from the soul. No one around him attempts to respond.
I’m struck at least as frequently by the opposite thought: What makes so many hearts soft? That’s why I find the verse from this week’s Torah portion especially moving:
God will open your heart and the hearts of your children to love your God with all your heart and all your soul, for the sake of your life. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
Harder, softer; kinder, crueller – what happens to the heart as we progress through life? What about my own heart as I get older? Which way is it going?
I meet many people whose hearts have been opened by experience. For example:
- ‘Those children I met in Greece have suffered so much. And they’re so lovely to each other. The older ones look out for the younger; when one of them is sad, the others comfort him. I can’t just leave them.’
- ‘I wanted to have a meal with their family. I promised to pay, because they were very poor. Then I saw their meagre food, their water from a cistern of mud, where the children mess…. I’d rather go back to Africa to help my people and risk prison, than be a free here in London.’
I see kindness in little things too, all the time: ‘I’ll help’; ‘I can do that’. It’s just the shopping, or giving a friend’s child a lift. It’s just listening as someone shares the sorrow which has engulfed her. Except there’s no ‘just’; these are not responses to take for granted.
I sometimes think the answer to Lear’s question isn’t difficult. Life is often cruel and unjust. There are plenty of reason why, involuntarily perhaps, people protect their heart against the pain with which life pierces it. It’s far from incomprehensible that we should want to build a wall of self-protection and turn our heart into a fortress. Its foundations are made of evasions: ‘I can’t bear to see; I don’t want to feel’. Its fortifications are protected by dogmas: ‘Why should I care? Those aren’t my kind of people. They’re……’.
But in truth those walls are also often made of pain: It’ll hurt too much if I let down the drawbridge to my soul.
None of us knows in advance whether experience will make our heart softer as we grow older, or harder and more defended. That’s why the verse from the Torah is more of a prayer than a description: God, open my heart; awaken me to deeper solidarity and compassion; make me more human.
Unlike many prayers, the answer is all around us. It comes not as a voice from heaven, but in the innumerable voices of life, crying out from a child, from a person in grief, or lonely. God speak in them all, and in all of us. The answer to the prayer lies waiting in our own heart, in our response.
Eva Ehrenberg fled from Nazi Europe to Britain. She wrote poetry in both German and English. In a witty rhyme, she notes that when you boil eggs in their shells they get hard, but if you bake potatoes in their jackets and they go soft. She concludes:
In pain as all of us are oft, we too become in our skin or shell
Some of us hard and others soft. (with thanks to Professor Timms)
It takes courage and trust, as well as compassion, to let the heart grow soft; maybe that’s why we need God’s help to open it.