Your Heart Is a Part of Your Body

Once upon a time, the story goes, there was a young man named Peter, who lived near the Black Forest, in Germany. And in that forest their lived two fairies: Dutch-Mike, and the Schatzhauser. Both were known to grant wishes, but only in their own particular way. The Schatzhauser was mischievous, but ultimately kind-hearted: he wanted his wishes to be used wisely. Dutch-Mike, on the other hand, would give a person whatever they wanted – no judgement, no expectation that they’d do something helpful or compassionate with it – but every wish he granted came at a terrible price.

Peter went into the forest, with some wishes he hoped would be granted, looking for one of these two magical creatures. He met the Schatzhauser, and because Peter was born on a Sunday between 11 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, the little glass fairy promised to grant him three wishes. That might seem like an oddly specific reason to do anything, really, but creatures in fairy tales have a knack for making decisions for confusing and nonsensical reasons, just like people in the real world.

Peter used his first two wishes very quickly. He came from a poor family, and had few friends. So he wished to be a better dancer than anyone he knew, and to always have as much money in his pockets as the richest man he knew. Then he asked for a factor of his very own, so that he could be the boss, and make even more money. The Schatzhauser granted both of his wishes, but declared that he would have to wait until later to be allowed to use the third. Peter went back to his village, and showed off his knew talent for dancing. Whenever there was a game of cards, he always had money in his pocket to wager, and his new factory began to make him rich and important-seeming.

But Peter didn’t know the first thing about how to run the factory, and he hadn’t thought to wish for the talent or wisdom to do so. Soon, the business failed, and the loss of the business fell hard on his little town, as suddenly so many people were out of work. There were no more parties, and no more dancing. Everyone else’s pockets were empty, so because of his wish, now Peter’s were empty again too. He had even less than when he’d made his first wish, and so he went back into the forest to find the Schatzhauser again. Instead, he found Dutch-Mike, the cruel fairy. Peter asked him for money, and Dutch-Mike promised him as much as he could spend in three lifetimes: all he would need to give up in return was his heart. Peter still longed to be rich, so he made the exchange: Dutch-Mike gave him a mountain of gold coins and took his heart – he collected them, you see. In it’s place in Peter’s chest, Dutch-Mike replaced the missing heart with a stone.

Peter felt like he had it made, now. He bought a big house, hired many servants, and spent his money on everything he’d ever wanted. He travelled the world, went on adventures, and experienced every wonder and luxury he could have ever imagined. But when he returned to his little town, near the Black Forest, he was not happy. He could not be happy. He could not feel anything. He felt no joy, no wonder, no anticipation or hope. He didn’t even feel fear or sadness. With a stone where his heart should be, he just felt…nothing. And worst of all, worse even than not being able to enjoy his wealth and everything he’d bought with it, he could not feel love, or feel loved by anyone else. His friends and his family felt distant from him now. Peter, with his great pile of money and his heart of stone, felt alone.

Your heart is a part of your body. It is a very important part of your body. With a very few, very special exceptions, in every living person your heart is working constantly. Most of what’s on the inside of your body doesn’t move around very much, at least when you are sitting still. But your heart is constantly moving, to keep you alive. Take your hand, if you will, and place it flat on your chest, a little to the left of center. If you focus on the feeling in your hand, and if your clothes aren’t too thick on this cold morning, perhaps you can feel it: the constant, rhythmic motion of your heart. The squeeze and release, many times per minute, every minute, every day, that pumps your precious blood through your arteries and veins, making sure that it reaches every part of your body, keeping you healthy and alive.

Your heart is not the only part of your body you need, but you certainly need it a lot. And for thousands of years, people have understood this and it has led them to understand the heart not just as the center of the circulatory system – your body’s network for carrying the blood that keeps you alive – but as the center of feeling and emotion, and of the soul itself. In the religion of ancient Egypt, there was a tradition that after the body dies, the soul travels on to the afterlife to be judged. And this judgement is made by taking the heart and putting it on a scale. On the other side of that scale, the heart is being measured against a single feather, which represents a concept called maat – which is like justice, but also includes truth, harmony, and every good deed it is possible to do. If the scale balances, the soul proceeds on, but if it tips, because the heart is too heavy with bad choices and wrong actions, it falls off of the scale and into the mouth of the hungry monster waiting below named Ammit – a combination of a lion, a hippopotamus, and a crocodile.

Our modern culture’s own traditions think of the heart in a similar, if less vivid way. The Valentine’s Day that we are now very close upon is bedazzled with hearts of all sizes, from enormous red glittery ones to the tiny, chalky candy sort that made news recently when it was pointed out that the company that makes them had folded, and would not be producing any of the pastel treats this year. We talk and think about the heart as the metaphorical seat of our emotions – but its involvement in the way that we feel is much more than just a symbol or a metaphor. We do not only feel our feelings with our brains, with our minds. We feel what we feel with our entire bodies, very much including our real, literal hearts.

When you love someone, you feel more happy when they’re happy, more sad when they’re sad; sometimes you can get fearful about how they’re feeling or whether they’re safe. And all of those feelings are not confined to the head. That fear might be a queasy feeling in the stomach. That sadness might be a heaviness in the neck and the joints. That happiness might be an energy that courses through the whole body making every movement seem just a little bit lighter and easier. The beating of the heart changes with our emotions, and it informs them. It is nearly impossible to be calm when your heart is beating quickly, and for people who live with depression, there can be real medical consequences for the healthy functioning of the heart. The heart, with its constant, necessary motion – strong enough to be felt even from outside the body – is a reminder that we are not floating brains, or bundles of ideas and abstract emotions. Who we are, what we do, how we feel, and how well we love depends on our entire bodies.

In the story of Peter and the two fairies, Peter is saved by help from the Schatzhauser, using his final wish to learn how to trick Dutch-Mike into swapping the stone back out of his chest and replacing it with his original heart. He loses all that money, and everything he bought with it, and everything he gained from his first two wishes, besides. But he regains the ability to feel: to have his pulse quicken and race at times of importance and excitement. He finds that he can love again. Friends, may you remember that our hearts are a part of our bodies – that who you are and how you feel is bigger than the mind, and requires your whole self. Because your feelings are a part of your body, too.

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