In college, I took a class on logic and folklore. We learned all about logical fallacies and how stupid everybody is.
But when some kid asked the professor about his own beliefs, he told us about these mystical Native American rituals he practiced to connect him with his family’s heritage.
This didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t understand why a professor of logic would believe in something that I regarded as illogical.
But I think I get it now.
Whatever beliefs my professor held that were beyond logic were nonetheless important to his heart, and he wasn’t going to ignore them in favor of pure reason and all its cold rationality.
It’s not that he was shutting out his brain. He had just learned how to listen to his heart in tandem with his head.
Something I seem never to have learned how to do.
For me, life has always been a battle between head and heart, where one must win and the other lose. No ties, no teamwork.
In first grade, I went to boarding school and learned the number one rule of social survival: DO NOT CRY. So I taught myself to blink back the scorching tears and swallow whole the choking sobs of homesickness.
Rationally it made perfect sense to me why I had to go to boarding school. But every time I said goodbye to my parents, it didn’t make any sense at all to my heart.
In middle school, I moved unexpectedly halfway around the world and learned that grief couldn’t acculturate you to a new society. So I stopped talking about home even as I secretly longed for it.
Rationally I understood why we had to leave my birth country. But in my heart I had no clue.
In my first year out of college, in an economy that had just collapsed, I worked a crappy job and learned that if the customer (who was king) didn’t pay you for your service you had to keep on smiling like you were happy about it anyway.
Rationally…wait there’s nothing rational about this one. So my heart turned to cynical stone at the infuriating injustice of it all.
And it’s not just me. Haven’t you experienced your own life cycle of must-dos and hate-to-dos, always seeming to sacrifice your heart in favor of your head, of whatever you need to do to survive in the moment?
But if emotion were truly useless, if it only served to shame us, make us miserable, and get in the way of our survival, then surely our species would have evolved past it by now, don’t you think?
I believe we’ve been given emotions for a reason. They’re there to guide us, to warn us when something isn’t right, and to guide us down the path to discovering why we were put on Earth.
So after a lifetime of fighting emotions, I’ve actually started listening to them. It turns out they have some really interesting things to say.
In eighth grade, I cried after seeing a movie about Anne Frank. It taught me that injustice is wrong and that helpless people should be helped.
In high school, I cried the first time I saw The Notebook. It taught me that true love is beautiful. (So don’t even give me any crap about this.)
In college, I cried when I left my family to study abroad. It taught me that family is the most valuable thing you can have.
As an adult, I’ve watched films like Waste Land and Frame by Frame and felt the hairs stand up on my arms as I asked myself why I’m not an artist wielding beauty in the fight for justice and shouting truth from the rooftops of the world?
Surely so much of my unhappiness has come from the constant dismissal of feelings that I thought branded me as weak and unworthy. It’s hard to be happy when you’re always hiding your tears in shame.
But now I listen to these tears. I listen to the sadness, to the anger and the outrage, to the beauty that brings goosebumps to my skin.
When I see hungry people, my heart hurts. When I see dogs in the pound, I want to adopt them. When I hear about abandoned and neglected and abused children, I want to ban procreation until every last one of these kids is given a good family.
These emotions are not something to hide or be ashamed of. They are the signs of who I truly am.
If you’ve ever felt stuck “finding your passion” or “searching for your calling” perhaps it’s time to start listening more closely to your heart. It probably won’t tell you what your dream job is or how to get it. But it will tell you more about yourself and what is truly important to you.
Here’s how you can start:
Write a list of 10 times in your life when you had a very strong emotional reaction to something. It could be anger, love, compassion, grief, awe. Anything that rattled your core, gave you goosebumps, or threatened to turn you into a fountain of tears in the middle of a movie theater.
Then take that list and ask yourself, why? What is it about these things that makes my heart bleed even when others’ don’t? And how can I listen to my heart and let it lead me to my calling?
Because if your head was going to do that for you, then you’d already be there.