Monday, June 22, 2009

Bleeding Heart (Remix)

Adapted from this post originally published 9/14/06.

Too often many people who take human suffering and dignity seriously and personally are viewed in some quarters as being wimpy. As pansies. Or as "bleeding hearts". I, for one, pray for the strength to be a bleeding heart. It is a label that should be worn with honor. There is nothing weak or shameful about learning to surrender to, realize, accept, and promote boundless compassion. To cultivate bodhicitta. To embody agape... caritas... divine love.

The use of the term as an insult comes from failing to parse "weak" and "meek" in the sense that it is one thing to forgive or be patient when you are in a position of perceived powerlessness and when you display such qualities from a position of strength. Bragging, boasting, bullying, and intimidating those weaker than yourself is not courage or bravery. It is a sign of inner weakness and insecurity. Imposing your will on someone through force isn't nearly as tough as submitting to faith, hope and love. To have restraint. To forgive. To care. And so in a classic form of desperate rhetoric, those too weak to show restraint, to offer and accept forgiveness, and to care and be cared about by others, try to re-define their weakness as a sign of strength. They confuse force for power, fear for respect, and arrogance (which is threatened by the success of others) for confidence (which celebrates and is strengthened by the success of others).

With such a mindset it is easy to say or think that if someone is advocating "love, love, love" that she or he must be an idealistic weenie who needs a dose of the cold, hard, and harsh nature of reality. But that's just it. A truly sacred path (Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Jain, Sihk, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Indigenous/Earth-Based, etc, or even a path with no name) is not one of shutting yourself off from the world, or transcending it in the sense of ignoring it or not caring about it. It is quite the opposite.

In the Mahayana tradition, for example, the Bodhisattva ideal of Buddhism involves learning to hear the cries of the world, to see and truly appreciate the nature of suffering. You are not building up walls, you are tearing them down and making yourself even more open to the circumstances which tend to buffet people about emotionally and mentally. Liberation comes from facing the causes of suffering - birth, sickness and injury, old age, and death - not from hiding from them. You don't just get a "dose" of reality - you get the whole thing.

Similarly, in the Abrahamic traditions people are to love others as they love themselves. Christians should (and generally do) understand this better than anyone - according to their theology and view of history, Christ was meek, loved everyone, and embraced pain and the suffering of all in order to save them. According the the Gospels, he loved so much he bled for the world. His heart pierced by the Roman centurion's spear, he bled for love. I wonder how many people who use the term "bleeding heart" as a pejorative claim to worship and obey one on Sunday mornings? I myself am humbled to be in such company.

And so it goes with each sacred path.

Cultivating love, loving-kindness, metta - whatever name you prefer - in the face of such exposure to the best and the worst in humanity, for all of humanity, for all sentient beings - THAT is tough. Tough love. But you keep going - learning to allow, learning to accept, learning to appreciate. There is a popular imagery of doing something so long, so hard, and with such extreme resolve, that you are said to do it "until you bleed". This is a powerful image because A) blood is equated with life and vitality and our most intimate and precious resource(s) and B) many types of repetitious physical activities wear and crack the skin until the person does literally bleed. As the fictional vampire Spike points out in a memorable quote from an episode of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "{I}t's always got to be blood... Blood is life. It's what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you other than dead."

So, then, do those who risk and give of themselves to truly care, not just about an abstraction like humanity (or some defined subset of people like "Americans"), but for each individual as a unique person worthy of that love, have bleeding hearts? Of course. You keep giving. You keep loving. You love until you bleed. (Then you love a bit more*)

*Of course, you have to care for yourself as well, and realize your reasonable limits. No one runs a marathon the first time they decide to get in shape by jogging. Burning out from over-extending yourself is neither beneficial nor inevitable.


  1. ~ Bleeding Heart ~

    A person who comes amongst those hurt and suffering people and wants to help, for whatever reason. And the reasons are not always right and good or well.
    A bleeding heart to Native Americans is someone who attempts to help while they are not well and are unhealed themselves.
    They are wounded and are bleeding as they "help" us. We who are wounded and bleeding.
    Many people mean well and many want to make a difference AND YET, many of these wanna-do good people, will not look at their own dis-ease or un-well ways.
    As a Native American I have seen too many people who have come amongst us and caused irrepairable damage while they pretend to be all-well and all-knowing.
    Love and peace and good and right and just begin within... and eminate from a core that is well. healthy and balanced.
    Mitakuye Oyasin - we are all related - meaning that we must learn to relate honestly and truthfully... and this relating is done this way... we will heal together when we all develop the capacity to allow others to resolve what affects them, infects them and US!

    There is a correlation to the bleeding heart of Jesus... History - It was UN-TRUE Christians who first began and started our holocaust... and then came countless others who came to "ministry" "help" us...

    I thank you for writing to clarify and qualify - Bleeding hearts.

    I have seen the bleeding hearts and have been on as well... we all have been.
    Blessings shared, Pilamaya
    Mitakuye Oyasin

    Akicita Wakan Mani

  2. Absolutely. Those who externally talk about charity but who are not charitable to themselves, who talk about forgiveness but do not forgive themselves, display a false humility but are still deeply prideful, just like those who mistake arrogance for confidence.

    Such helpers do not display bodhicitta, or caritas - a selfless boundless love that fully embraces the giver and the receiver. What they do for others they really do for themselves. They tend to impose what they think is best for others regardless of what others think, and if the recipients of their kindness aren't sufficiently grateful such givers are outraged.

    This is why I included this part of a prayer I recently composed:

    "May darkness and suffering transform those who experience them and in turn be transformed into a gateway for greater clarity and purpose and capacity for love. May we seek and embrace the strength and courage necessary to grow through our struggles, to find the opportunities in each crisis, and to calmly face our troubles. May we realize that our sense of isolation and incompleteness, the dark hole in our being, is a delusion, so that our grasping and craving in resentment and bitterness can give way to giving and receiving in joy and gratitude. Through this healing may our hatred give way to compassion, our greed to charity, and our ignorance to wisdom. May insecurity and arrogance give way to faith and confidence. Let cynicism and indifference and impatience burn away like the morning mist to reveal the wonder of our existence."

    It is also why I like the following quote by a group of Australian aboriginal activists including Lila Watson:

    "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together."

    Thanks for posting and for such a helpful and well-articulated reply!


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