A couple of days ago, my wife and I were sitting outside on the balcony, having tea and catching up. We are busy throughout the week with work and our daughter’s school and driving from place to place so weekend mornings are a great time for us to check in with each other.
We’d been discussing the heart. And how your emotions can affect your heart. And how, after a major life trauma, you can die of a broken heart. Or you can choose to live. We’ve all felt the effects of stress on our hearts: it beats harder and often erratically, and can trigger panic attacks. Ironically, being in love, which I suppose can be a type of stressor, can also cause fluctuating heartbeats and similar sensations of alarm. The point being — the heart appears to know, quite literally, when things are in flux.
It’s interesting how, according to my MacBook dictionary, the etymology of the word courage comes from:
Middle English (denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings): from Old French corage, from Latin cor ‘heart’.
Nothing too surprising here and of course Brené Brown has famously spoken about courage and vulnerability, but I find it fascinating that our lexicon is peppered with language that has intuited the nature of the ticker in our chest with aphorisms like:
It’s with a heavy heart…
My heart is bursting.
When I looked up “brave,” I found the following.
late 15th century: from French, from Italian bravo ‘bold’ or Spanish bravo ‘courageous, untamed, savage’, based on Latin barbarus (see barbarous).
To me, “brave” is the brash cousin to the more thoughtful “courage.” I think you need both in order to get through life. Courage is about being afraid and vulnerable and doing it anyway. Brave reminds me of the duende — something I wrote about in The Art of Creative Rebellion:
Federico García Lorca famously wrote about this in “Theory and Play of the Duende.”
. . . Angel and Muse come from outside us: the angel brings light, the Muse form (Hesiod learnt from her). Golden bread or fold of tunic, it is her norm that the poet receives in his laurel grove. While the duende has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood.
Reject the angel, and give the Muse a kick, and forget our fear of the scent of violets that eighteenth-century poetry breathes out, and of the great telescope in whose lenses the Muse, made ill by limitation, sleeps.
The true struggle is with the duende . .
It takes courage to create. It takes bravery to approach the tabula rasa, whether it’s a blank page or canvas or Sketch file. I find that I move from the state of contemplative courage into the active state of bravery, when the duende has shown up with a surge of natural determination: Then there is the electric slap of paint splattering crimson across the virgin white canvas; the torrent of unabated words descends; the heightened state of sensibilities that yank the soul out of the muck of the everyday reminding you that you’ve been sleep-walking for some time. Like Picasso, I’ve always preferred the duende over the muse.
After my wife and I finished our tea, we went into the kitchen. In my wife’s email in-box was a newsletter from TED and the title of the speech was “How emotions change the shape of your heart” by Dr. Sandeep Jauhar. The speech was surprisingly germane to what we had been discussing. Jauhar mentions that there is a syndrome called “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” in which:
“There is a heart disorder first recognized about two decades ago called “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” or “the broken heart syndrome,” in which the heart acutely weakens in response to intense stress or grief, such as after a romantic breakup or the death of a loved one. As these pictures show, the grieving heart in the middle looks very different than the normal heart on the left. It appears stunned and frequently balloons into the distinctive shape of a takotsubo, shown on the right, a Japanese pot with a wide base and a narrow neck. We don’t know exactly why this happens, and the syndrome usually resolves within a few weeks. However, in the acute period, it can cause heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, even death.”
The cardiologist ends his speech with:
There is a better way, perhaps, if we recognize that when we say “a broken heart,” we are indeed sometimes talking about a real broken heart. We must, must pay more attention to the power and importance of the emotions in taking care of our hearts.
Emotional stress, I have learned, is often a matter of life and death.
Life is extraordinary. Brutal and wonderful. And sometimes it just takes courage to get out of bed and through the day. But the damage we do to our hearts, when we are not truly ourselves is real — not just metaphorically.
You are capable of so much more than you allow yourself. It’s a natural tendency for people to assume that you can’t do something. Or shouldn’t do something beyond the narrow social definition you’ve been assigned or worse yet, you’ve assigned yourself. How often do you hear people bemoan that when they were younger they painted or sang or danced or played in a rock band?
How about doing it now? Now is a good time.
If you’ve always wanted to try stand-up why not simply go to an open mic night and give it a shot? Sure you may fail but even if you do, keep doing it. The muse is fickle but if you keep showing up over and over, then the duende will take notice and kick the muse to the corner. And the duende will show up as long as you are loyal to the spirit of courageous creativity. And then there is no failure. The act of courageously creating is its own reward.
I once had a 1:1 with a co-worker who was concerned that the work he was doing was not being acknowledged, and worse yet, being appropriated by his superiors as their own. He said he felt like he was disappearing. His sense of self, dissipating. I told him that he seemed to be needing validation for his work, which was understandable. But he should be doing the work and engaged with it because he wanted to do a great job. He knows whether the works is well-executed or not without acknowledgment. And even though his boss may not say it, he knows it too.
This co-worker is also a guitarist and singer who gave it up. I recommended he continue to pursue that passion — it would give him purpose and a powerful sense of self that could only help his sense of presence at work. He looked at me and said, You’re right. I could see the spark of creative bravery (the duende) light up in his eyes for a moment.
I told this co-worker: In a den of thieves, you can still be a knight.
And that is creative courage.
What I’m reading:
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.
Place to check out:
The Magic Castle. Spent a day there for a department offsite recently and it was awesome. Historical, storied and still musty in a good, haunted castle kind of way.
WTF with Marc Maron — interview with David Lee Roth. The frontman for Van Halen turns out to be quite eloquent (really loquacious) and thoughtful.
I,I by Bon Iver. Stunningly beautiful.
The Complete Birth of The Cool by Miles Davis. I’ve been rediscovering the genius that is Miles.
Glastonberry 2000: David Bowie by David Bowie.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) by Illuminati Hotties.