“Sweetheart, dear heart, heart-to-heart, soft heart, half-hearted…” It must be Valentine’s Day because hearts are everywhere: on greeting cards, in shop windows, on candy boxes, in home decorations. A local gourmet grocer is even advertising a hefty ribeye steak that has been butterflied into the shape of a heart. Now what could be more romantic than red meat, especially in Texas! But yes, red is the color of the day, chocolate is the flavor of the month, and roses are the blooms of choice. Love is in the air.
I’ve been thinking about hearts lately, about the prevalence of heart metaphors in our language and the real meaning of “having a heart” in these difficult times in which we live, and in which nobody seems to have a heart. Since antiquity, the heart has been considered the seat of emotion and affection, kindness and generosity. In Greek mythology, perfect lovers were initially joined together in the heart, and then sliced in half before they were born; thus, the search for love became the perennial search for the other half, the “you complete me” refrain of so many wedding vows and the matching half-hearts of so much love-inspired jewelry.
The heart symbol, of course, can be traced back to the actual shape of the organ itself, but also to a recurring shape in nature, particularly in leaves and flowers. The heart is a pleasing shape, a symmetrical shape, shot through with the arrow of sudden love or the sudden realization of truth, both equally and universally understood. To be heart-centered is to have a certain wisdom and understanding, a softer, kinder judgment of self and others; to follow one’s heart is to have the courage of one’s convictions.
In ancient Egypt, the heart was more than just an abstract symbol or a figure of speech, it was a philosophical/physiological reality demanding accountability in both this life and the next. The heart was thought to contain the soul and, thus, the knowledge of good and evil. As such, it was the only organ left intact in the deceased’s body during mummification because it would have to be weighed immediately after death to determine one’s fate in the afterlife. This ritual, depicted in the ancient papyrus of the Book of the Dead and on tomb scenes throughout the Valley of the Kings along the Nile, shows the heart of the deceased being weighed on a golden scale against the white feather of Mà at, the goddess of truth and justice. If the heart is lighter than the feather, then the deceased goes on to live forever in paradise; if not, well … the person (and his heart) is eaten by the crocodile-headed god, Ammut (Ammit). To the ancient Egyptians, being devoured into oblivion was a fate worse than death itself.
The ideas of life everlasting and a pending judgment of salvation or damnation may have begun with the Egyptians, but it has been refined, codified and celebrated in myriad ways among many religious traditions. Down through the ages, the heart, as both a life-giving organ and a symbol of goodness, has come to be regarded if not as the physical locus of the actual soul itself, at least as the spiritual locus of love and compassion and the embodiment of the higher qualities of humanity. Those associations are reflected in such common idioms as “to follow your heart, being big-hearted, having a heart of gold, a good heart, a true heart …” The popular expression “getting to the heart of the matter” does, indeed, get at the essence of the deeply-rooted core of morality and fundamental truth that the heart represents. The primacy of the heart as a foundation of faith and good works — of faith, hope, and charity — can even be found in the Bible: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)
The first human heart transplant was performed in Cape Town, South Africa, by Dr. Christiaan Barnard on December 3, 1967, and that promptly gave “have a heart” a whole new meaning. Other transplants soon followed as doctors tried to perfect the procedures and extend survival rates. It wasn’t until more effective immunosuppressant drugs were developed in 1980, however, that the heart transplant became a viable solution for those with end-stage heart failure. Today, about 5,000 heart transplants a year are done, 2,000 in the U.S. alone, with expected survival rates of 5 to 10 years.
Considered a modern-day miracle, especially among those grateful recipients who are given years of life that they never hoped to have, the procedure is still not without moral and ethical controversies, even today. As is so often the case with dramatic developments in science and medicine, people are accused of trying to “play god.” If the heart is the essence of a person’s identity, then what happens to identities when organs are switched? Recipients of a transplant have, in fact, acknowledged feeling “different” afterwards or having “different sensibilities.” They often want to learn more about the donor and his/her family so they might express their gratitude in a personal way and gain a better understanding of what they might be feeling.
February is American Heart Month. February is Valentine’s Day. February is usually a cold and wintery month. So this is an especially good time to “have a heart.”