Opening Our Hearts
This week I had a stunning dream:
I am in a canoe in a stormy sea. The sky and water are the same color, dark gray. The canoe is crafted from two deer hides sewn together. The canoe is our response to the pandemic. I am being asked to allow my heart to be as big as those of the deer. I feel how large that is, feel my heart expanding in my chest.
A huge, dark whale appears. I ride on its back. Its heart is many times bigger than mine or the deer’s. My heart opens and grows until it is as big as the whale’s.
After this powerful experience, I kneel on the shore. The two deer hides are folded in front of me in two large squares. The hides are a rich, warm brown color. Each is covered with writing and pictures in red and black paint or dye. I place one hand on each hide and give thanks to the deer for carrying me out into the ocean to meet the whale.
What does it mean to open our hearts in response to a catastrophe like the coronavirus pandemic? Every day, on the news, on social media, and in our lives, we see – and participate in – acts of love for family, friends, and strangers. People sew masks and donate money, food, and supplies. They gather on porches and balconies to applaud and express gratitude for the heroism of health care workers and others on the front lines: in hospitals, grocery stores, agricultural fields, meat-packing plants, delivery warehouses. People care for neighbors, run errands, make sure others have what they need to survive.
We also see acts of unspeakable cruelty, greed, neglect, ignorance, and indifference to suffering. Wealthy business owners snap up loans intended for small companies that will go under without them. People hoard or engage in price-gouging of essential protective equipment. Officials refuse to release immigrants from detention and people accused or convicted of non-violent crimes from jails and prisons. Some prisoners are locked up only because they can’t afford cash bail; poverty becomes a crime and, in the pandemic, a potential death sentence. Small but vociferous bands of protesters crowd together to demand “freedom” from life-saving public health activity restrictions. The federal administration uses its clout during the epidemic to reward sycophants, punish those who dare to speak the truth, and suspend vital environmental and civil-rights protections. The President publicly touts dangerous, unproven remedies that his followers then take, causing harm and even death.
As an older, white, middle-class person who doesn’t have to work, I have the privileges of housing, ample resources, and access to outdoor space without risking infection. Few people I know have had COVID-19, to my knowledge, and so far, all have survived. Despite physical distancing, I feel held in a web of love, caring, and sharing.
From my secure home base, I open my heart to those who suffer deeply. The millions who have had COVID-19, those who have died and those who have recovered. The people who have lost loved ones, unable to be with them as they died. Black and Brown people whose existing oppression is multiplied in a thousand ways by the crisis. Disabled people, immigrants, and other marginalized groups who struggle to survive under ordinary circumstances.
Opening our hearts individually is a necessary first step. In the dream, I first allow my heart to grow to the size of a large deer’s. Growing our hearts to the size of a whale’s – the size of a small car – requires collective consciousness and action.
We live in a small-hearted society. We all participate, voluntarily or not, in unjust structures that kill the least powerful among us. Right now, people are dying in numbers that we can hardly grasp. To cure the conditions that cause so much unnecessary suffering and death from COVID-19 in the US, to create a society that values the lives of people and other living creatures more than profit, we need a collective whale-sized heart.