Dealing With A Heavy Heart
How to Stay Virtuous in a Life of Suffering
Life is tough; there is no doubt about it. Aside from the existential crisis and evil in the world that we all have to contend with, there’s also the accumulation of past mistakes, transgressions, and those embarrassing & shameful moments that seem to come to mind when we are falling asleep. The agglomeration of these seems to attach to our hearts like barnacles on a ship giving us the sensation of having a “heavy heart”. Again, life is not easy, but is there a way to properly deal with that? Surely, human beings are resilient; we can withstand an unbelievable amount of adversity and challenge. Fortunately, I am optimistic that there is a proper way of dealing with this, but it comes with a bitter pill, which I will get into later. First, let’s go through what the costs of self-improvement are.
The Cost of Self-Improvement
Self-improvement is a bit of a buzzword, but it does convey, broadly speaking, what many people both desire and need in life. The importance of self-improvement cannot be overstated — positive emotion occurs in the achievement of goals, particularly when the goals are ‘Stoically’ aligned such that they are good for you, your community, your country, and humanity and that they propagate effectively throughout time — but are there any costs? It is very rare to find anything for free, after all, and we may be naive to think the contrary.
By definition, self-improvement means that you are better today than you were yesterday. The less-optimistic way of viewing that is that you were worse yesterday than you are today. Surely, this is a great thing and something to be proud of, but it also means that you have more opportunities to look back on your past and, well, feel terrible about it.
Improving Skills & Gaining Perspective
If you think about it in terms of skills, it is less obvious. Being better at the guitar right now will likely not make you feel embarrassed about how terrible you were in fifth grade. However, this is an example of something that “you know you didn't know”. You likely were aware that you were still a beginner, that you were no Hendrix. What if, on the other hand, you performed horribly onstage with an overabundance of confidence in your “skill”? Here, we venture into the “you didn't know that you didn’t know” category. You thought you were good, but you were objectively not.
Such can happen as we gain perspective in life. Perhaps you made an insensitive comment to a family member while not understanding the full depth of the insult. Or maybe you’ve been unknowingly neglecting a work task simply because you did not know that it was part of your job. Upon “awakening” to this realization, you will most certainly feel a shot of embarrassment or shame. The proper perspective will help you develop and grow from that experience, but the presence of these emotions will still be.
These are my personal favourite. It’s one thing to gain awareness on something that you’ve previously had little awareness of, but it’s a whole other thing to be negligent at something when you know better. These are in the “you know that you know” category and are particularly painful. Let’s use an obvious example — you neglect your duties at work. You know they are part of your job, but you choose laziness and comfort over hard work. Surely, you feel heaviness while you are neglecting, but the inevitable embarrassment and shame you feel when you get exposed at the next work meeting is like a kettlebell hanging off of you.
This is an unfortunate pattern to develop, and so it is of tremendous importance that you work regularly to align your actions with your perspective as it improves over time. We all know that there is a difference between knowing what you should do and actually doing it. The best of the best know what they should do and then actually do it!
The Loss of Innocence
The final little category is the loss of innocence. This one can be particularly gruesome. As you mature you begin to witness the human capacity for evil in the world. This may be in the form of maliciousness towards you from another person — flat-out inflicting pain for no other reason than malicious intent. That is hard to deal with. We are not angels, after all; we are complicated organisms that have emotions vast beyond our understanding which move towards goals that we also don’t really understand. The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that your focus as an individual should be on your own evil because it is within one’s grasp.
“It is of no importance whether evil is here or there, but one can only deal with the evil in oneself, because it is within one’s own reach, elsewhere one trespasses.”
However, that doesn’t make it easy to do. It’s hard enough to learn to recognize an emotion such as spite in yourself, but it is tremendously difficult to determine why it is there in the first place. That takes a significant amount of reflection and is beyond the scope of this article. The point is that recognizing human capacity for evil, particularly your own, can truly weigh down your heart. Stephen King did an incredible job of portraying how much of a burden this can be in his book “The Green Mile” which was made into a movie.
King tells the story of a man, John Coffey, who was placed on death row after being wrongly accused of murdering two children. The prison officer, Paul Edgecomb, witnesses that John is capable of performing miracles; he is able to heal others. Along with that is the supernatural power to feel the great pain and suffering of others in the world. Having a full account of John’s powers and innocence, the prison officer wishes to release John from captivity. The conversation is as follow:
Paul Edgecomb: On the day of my judgement… when I stand before God… and he asks me why did I… did I kill one of his true… miracles… what am I going to say? That it was my job? It’s my job.
John Coffey: You tell God the Father it was a kindness you done. I know you’re hurting and worrying. I can feel it on you. But you ought to quit on it now. I want it to be over and done with. I do. I’m tired, boss. Tired of being on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. I’m tired of never having me a buddy to be with… to tell me where we’s going to, coming from, or why. Mostly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world… every day. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head… all the time. Can you understand?
Like many great authors, King uses a character to illustrate an extreme. In this case, an extremely empathetic individual is portrayed. In doing so it is easy for us to relate to the character, as it is a fundamental human emotion to which we are all susceptible. Do you think you could handle feeling all of the pain and suffering in the world? Would you want to keep living if you had a way out? Deep questions indeed.
A Heavy Heart
It’s worth repeating: life is tough. There is no shortage of things that can weigh you down, which can lead you towards seclusion, depression, bitterness, resentment, spite, and ultimately poor character and vice. These forces are formidable and it can make it difficult for us to be our virtuous selves. But we are not completely hopeless.
It’s An Ongoing Process
At the start of this article, I mentioned that there was a bitter pill to be swallowed in the “solution” to this problem. The solution is simple enough in principle: don’t allow yourself to drift into poor character. However, it is hard — to say the least — to do so practically. We are susceptible to searching for a solution that will fix a problem forever. Wouldn’t it be nice, after all, to do something today that would fix this problem for the rest of our lives? Sign me up!
The reality is that there is no pill you can take that will do this. Temperance is something that takes daily work. A common metaphor is “wiping the slate clean”, and this is something that must be done regularly. It’s not like you can change the oil in your car 10 times in a row and then no longer need an oil change for years to come! You can’t bank these things; it’s simply an ongoing process. It is absolutely something that you need to master, however, because as life goes on you will only accumulate more; more embarrassing moments, more mistakes, more acts of negligence. That will never change.
Properly Dealing With The Source
At the same time, you can’t always just push bad thoughts out of your mind whenever they arise. The underlying problem has to be dealt with. This problem could have arisen from past trauma, for example, and you need to make it a priority to effectively deal with that through therapy and other means. Thoroughly writing about what happened in your past and what you’ve learned from it is a huge step in the right direction.
In the same way, if you are holding a grudge against your spouse for something they did months ago you both need to sit down and come to an understanding that will allow you to move forward. Given, of course, that you have properly dealt with it, it then becomes a process of keeping your “internal slate” clean. You need to remind yourself of what’s truly important every single time those thoughts creep up. When you feel a ping of resentment at your spouse, you need to bring yourself back to “we’ve spoken about this and we are moving forward. Let it go.”
Hence, daily maintenance is vital to keeping the slate clean, but the more you effectively deal with the source of the problem the fewer times you need to grab that cloth.
A Monologue from a Meathead Philosopher
I’d like to end with a brief monologue from an ex-meathead philosopher, Chris Moore. Commonly known as “Barbell Buddha”, Chris is a powerlifter (hence the self-described “meathead”) who wrote several books on philosophy and self-help which was compiled into a book called “Barbell Buddha: The Collected Writings of Chris Moore”. He puts these ideas very beautifully.
“Your heart will only get heavier and heavier, and harder and harder to lift. The flow of life will go on, of course it will, and you will be pulled in the current. You will want to go, you will know the calling, but your heart will remain anchored. It will stretch, It will ache. That’ll never change, please know that. At best you will go totally numb. You’ll just forget what you love. Don’t ever let that happen. Heavy or light, pick it up. Hold it high for all to see. Drift along with the current of life. Remain present. Don’t be driven by external expectations, ever. Just let the next thing you do also be the most important thing you could do. You are divine, so don’t waste a fucking moment of your time. Let the pain accumulate with the drift, but keep it wiped clean. See the shiny polished finish underneath, a clearer view of what matters most. See for yourself that there’s really nothing to fear. The hurt can be bad, the resource scarce, the pain very real and very heavy, but you are not powerless. You can still act, you can still reach. You are still capable of picking your heart up and carrying it wherever you want, really. So, what’s stopping you?”
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.