Part Two by Beth Bartlett
You can read part 1 here.
Hope: What is a heart transplant if not hope? In granting the possibility of new life out of death, it is the essence of hope. Yet, hopefulness is also knowing death is imminent and finding a way to live well into that knowledge. The impulse of hope encourages us to go on despite the odds. Hope indeed seems to spring eternal. In my darkest days, something would come along and lift me up. Hope is a testimony of the human spirit, lifting us up, refusing to refuse us. This new heart brought hope to me, and I believe that in our going on together, we carry the hopes of my donor’s loved ones as well.
Joy: My mother’s favorite Bible verse was Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” By its very nature of incapacitating illness and precarity, the period preceding a transplant is a time of weeping and dark night of the soul. But awakening to the dawning of a new heart, a new life, brings, as the psalmist says, joy. A new heart allowed me the chance to live wholeheartedly, without hesitation, with abandon, open to the joy that is the wellspring of being. In Lerita’s conversations with her former heart, referencing Howard Thurman, her heart asks, “What brings you joy? What makes you come alive?”[i] The vibrancy that radiates with every new opportunity for that aliveness fills our lives with joy.
Gratitude: It seems to go without saying that the inherent response to a heart transplant is gratitude. How could anyone be anything but enormously grateful for this gift of life given out of the depths of sorrow and generosity. We both also felt deep gratitude for all those who helped us – providing meals, transportation, prayer, care, comfort, and support. But the greatest gratitude is for gratitude itself. Both Lerita and I grappled with anger and resentment that our lives had not turned out as planned, for the suffering we experienced and the limits placed on our lives, as well as with envy of those who were able to achieve the dreams we had not been able to realize. Gratitude was the antidote. Living in the fullness of gratitude, we have little room for envy or resentment. In conversations with her new heart, Lerita learned her heart’s name was “Grace.” It is fitting. Gratitude, gracias, graci, grace. To live with thanks is to live in grace, to live graciously — with kindness and compassion toward one’s own and other’s frailties, and with awareness of the abundance of life’s blessings.
Metanoia: But what of the anger that arises from sexism and racism — from being treated with disrespect and discrimination simply for the color of one’s skin or for living in a female body? As Lerita’s heart counseled her, when stored as resentment, the energy of anger only hurts yourself. Instead, put the energy to good use — set boundaries, create, resist. As Audre Lorde wrote, “Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act. . . .”[ii] Refuse to be denigrated, but also refuse to turn anger on others. Let others know what is and is not acceptable; then treat them mercy and a compassion made possible through metanoia – a spiritual change of heart.
Spending weeks in the University hospital clinics, I was struck by how artificial and arbitrary are the ways we divide ourselves from each other. Everywhere I looked — infants and elders; female, male, trans; wearing crosses, hijabs, stars of David, pentacles; on crutches, in wheelchairs, and able-bodied; the many hues of black and brown; the tongues of many nations – Hmong, Somali, English, Spanish, Arabic – all of us waiting for labs, for test results, for our fates to be determined. Waiting in chairs, our common humanity is revealed.
“We share a common human nature,” wrote Sam Keen. “The 50 percent of the human race I cast into the category of aliens are fellow humans who, like myself, are faulted, filled with contradictory impulses of love and hate, generosity, and a blind will to survive . . . . “[iii] To experience metanoia requires us to recognize that all the qualities of humanity – love, compassion, kindness, hatred, evil, envy fear, violence – are in ourselves as much as anyone else. Accepting “the fullness of our humanity,” wrote bell hooks, “ . . . allows us to recognize the humanity of others.”[iv] “Metanoia,” Keen continued, “brings the enemy within the circle of co-promising, conversation, and compassion.”[v] As Lerita put it well, “I finally understand that everyone who comes to the earth is here to heal, everyone. A homeless person, a king, or a wall street broker – we are all spiritual beings who are finding our way back home to God. I hold more compassion for people, no matter who they are. . . .”[vi]
One need not go through a literal change of heart to experience metanoia. It is possible for all of us, all the time. We may struggle against it, hang on to our grievances and divisions, vilify our enemies, but as Lerita continued, “Everyone is just trying to figure it out.”
Love: The central heart wisdom for both Lerita and myself is the importance of love. As Lerita’s new heart spoke to her: “Love is the ultimate, the true emotion of the heart. . . . Love helps you understand that you are part of an interconnected web of relationships; it is designed to help. you remember that everyone is connected. Love and connection are the universal message.”[vii] In Brian Swimme’s The Universe Is a Green Dragon, the youth asks the teacher what our fullest destiny is, to which the teacher responds, “to become love in human form.”[viii] This was the lesson I learned when I first faced my mortality in my early twenties, and again with the transplant. I often pondered what life was all about, and the only thing that made sense to me was love – our destiny – to become love in human form.
So, as it turns out, the association of the heart with love is appropriate after all. To become love is the enduring wisdom of the heart.
Bartlett, Elizabeth. 1997. Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant. Duluth, MN: Pfeifer-Hamilton.
Brown, Lerita Coleman. 2019. When the Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom. Digital edition.
Hooks, bell. 2013. Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.
Keen, Sam. 1983. The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
Swimme, Brian. 1985. The Universe Is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.
[i] Dr. Brown has since written a book about Howard Thurman, What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman, and conducts retreats, teaches, and has a podcast helping people to access peace and joy in their hearts. Find out more at Lerita Coleman Brown.
[ii] Lorde, 127.
[iii] Keen, 150.
[iv] Hooks, 198.
[v] Keen, 150.
[vi] Brown, 3010.
[vii] Brown, 2363.
[viii] Swimme, 40.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.
Categories: General, Gratitude, Herstory, Love, Women’s Spirituality, Women’s Voices