Love and a Heart of Stone

Yesterday on Instagram I asked via Stories if anyone had anything they wanted me to write about. One of the responses I received, apt for the upcoming Valentine’s holiday, was:

“Fixing a heart that’s like a stone.”

I appreciate that this was asked. It takes a fair amount of openness to breach this subject and acknowledge that you, someone you know, or the general population has a heart currently made of rock. Indeed, looking around, it does seem like there’s a lot of cold-stone behavior out there.

So, what to do? How do we fix a heart that’s cold to feeling?

First, before talking about empathy, love, and compassion, we need to take a step back. A statement such as “A heart like a stone” can elicit feelings of self-deprecation or judgement. Although it may be true at the time, whomever is feeling and/or subject to such a thing are experiencing life and all of its conditions the same as everyone else. That is to say, everyone has the same desire to avoid pain, suffering, illness, and issues — and everyone experiences the same feelings of pain, suffering, illness, and has issues.

So please, be easy on yourself.

Let’s begin with empathy. Empathy, as defined, is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another. The key word, and where we can have issues, is “share“. In psychological terms, burnout occurs when one experiences too much empathy — or shared suffering. Such high, sustained, levels of empathy can quickly overcome a person, as she becomes overwhelmed with sharing of the conditions, feelings, and suffering of others. It’s when we have reached this state of burnout that I’ve found most people to have the “heart of a stone,” that is, it is actually impossible to feel without risking further burnout!

Burnout is a condition that I’m well aware of and versed in as an overly-empathetic person. As most people who know me can attest, I feel everything: There’s not a movie I won’t get misty-eyed watching, a social cause I won’t stand up for, or a funeral I won’t cry at — whether I know the person or not. That said, I can quickly, if I’m not careful, become burnt out and cold due to the strain sharing in such things can bring. Too many shared emotions can consequently make me not feel anything at all!

“So wait! Are you saying it’s best we don’t share, recognize, or acknowledge other’s suffering?!”

Absolutely not! Empathy is one-hundred percent needed to relate to humanity, all beings on Earth, and the universe itself. But, it’s only the beginning state needed to achieve proper understanding, love, and compassion. Where empathy is finite, and can burn you out, true love and compassion are infinite. You cannot burn out on altruistic love and great compassion. In order to get there, though, you have to have empathy to recognize the suffering or conditions of others.

So then, what is love? (Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.)

I’m sorry for the ear worm.

If you ask the Greeks, there are eight different types of love. Then of course we have five different love languages. Don’t forget about Romance languages too! (OK, to be fair, they have nothing to do with love — though one could argue hearing someone whisper to them in French or Spanish is quite lovely).

The topic of love can get complicated quickly — just like most relationships. In fact, I truly believe that the only “relationship status” that should be available online is “It’s Complicated” because we’re all complicated in some form or fashion.

In fact, to remind myself personally how love can manifest in different forms, I got the words “LOVE SONG” tattooed across my knuckles. When I think of a love song, I have to acknowledge that there are a myriad of genres, types, and moods that can be expressed. There are depressing love songs, upbeat love songs, romantic love songs, longing love songs, love songs of praise and worship — and everything in between! Like music, humans also experience this wide gamut of love.

That leads us to our topic question: How do we “fix” a heart of stone with love? And which type of love would be best?

Altruistic Love.

When most of us in the West think about love, what comes to mind is romantic love or familial love, more often than not. We’re used to a love that is given with conditions. And if these conditions aren’t met, we rescind our love and feel heartbroken! It’s this love that has strings attached that gets us into so much trouble with our own heart.

Altruistic love, on the other hand, is a love that is given freely, without conditions, without causes. It is a love that encompasses all and everything — for no other reason than itself and the recognition and care for others. Where empathy allows for the recognition and sharing of other’s suffering and conditions, altruistic love allows for true care and compassion. We can see this type of love in such cases as Jesus of Nazareth or the historical Buddha.

Thus, although empathy is needed at the start, if we simply share someone’s suffering without exuding altruistic love and compassion, our actions taken are not of any benefit to ourselves and others. In fact, if one experiences burnout sharing a suffering state for too long, not only are they of no benefit to the beings they’re suffering with — they can actually be of detriment, causing more suffering!

Altruistic love opens the door for beneficial actions. Giving to those in need just to give. Providing an ear or space just to provide ear and space. Sending love to all just to send love to all — even if that includes individuals you might not otherwise care for. This type of love is far reaching, infinite, and will never burn out a heart’s flame to cold embers. This type of love is also one that easily extends to yourself, as you yourself are as deserving of and needing of love as every other being. That in essence is the difference between love and compassion.

Compassion is the recognition that all beings are experiencing the same realities of this world. We all are rife with desires, we all grow old, we all get sick, and ultimately we all pass away. We are all interdependent, all existing together, all a part of the great wholeness that is the universe. Compassion is the concern for the well being of others — including yourself.

So, how do we fix a heart that is like stone? We don’t. A heart of stone is still a heart, perfect as it is in the current moment. A heart of stone is still capable of altruistic love and compassion, even if empathy is hard to come by. It’s the recognition and concern for all beings — all including yourself — and the beneficial, no-strings-attached actions that altruistic love brings, that will ultimately warm the heart in time.