On the challenges of keeping an open heart

When I was much younger, I read an interview with Debra Winger – an actress I adored growing up – talking about a meeting she’d once had with Kathleen Turner, another strong, sensual 1980s heroine who’s sadly fallen off the radar today.

I can’t remember the specifics but Winger said she’d met Turner briefly at a party – or perhaps on a film set – and the latter had been friendly enough, but a little aloof. To paraphrase Winger, she said she got the impression that Turner had made all the friends she wanted in life and wasn’t interested in acquiring any more.

I must have been in my late teens or early twenties at this point and I remember thinking: Why would anyone do that?  There was something very disconcerting about it to me – this idea that you could suddenly reach a point where you’d made all the friends you needed in life and you weren’t interested in reaching out anymore, in meeting new people, in being challenged. It seemed to me to be the ultimate sign of a closed heart.  And a closed heart was exactly what I wanted to avoid.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve had two major, but very contradictory, realisations.  The first was a sudden and profound understanding of exactly what E.M. Forster – a writer I read a lot of in my youth – meant when he said ‘Only connect’ – an achingly simple phrase that was only very loosely penetrable to me in my teen years. (That connecting with your fellow human beings, whether by seeking out ‘kindred spirits,’ or by having a brief but uplifting exchange, was actually the very essence of life.) Living as I do here in Cairo, far away from family and friends, those words have often echoed in my head. People can make you miserable, no doubt, but they can also make you blissfully happy.

But running alongside that realization was the slow dawning that age and experience, and perhaps also my life as an expat, had terribly coloured my view of my fellow humans. I realized that I was no longer as willing as I once had been to give everyone a chance. No longer did I repeat to myself fervently that everyone had good and bad points; nor was I willing to be as open as I’d been before. I had better instincts now and I was more willing and able to follow those instincts. To put it another way, as I told friends, I had become smarter, and thus fussier, about who I spent my time with.

Perhaps that, in itself, is no bad thing – it seems to make sense that you should surround yourself with good people, as hundreds of positivity books will tell you.  There is the undeniable fact also that we understand ourselves better as we get older and become more comfortable with who we are, which then influences the choices we make. And yet, it still seems to me a fundamental fallacy, somehow – this idea that age and wisdom make you more discerning about people and your circle will narrow but strengthen as a result.

I think the truth is more prosaic – life and age can harden your heart, and sometimes you never even realize that it’s happening.  An accumulation of hurts, big and small, a multitude of let-downs – as is bound to happen in life – a cacophony of so-called ‘a-ha’ moments (I was an idiot to trust that person/ I was wrong about this one/ this person is going to let me down) and a few rejections move you further and further away from the open-hearted generous soul you once were, or may have aspired to be.

Once upon a time, I chose to trust and to accept that a bruised heart and ego might be an acceptable consequence of that choice, the price I would pay for having an open heart. Somewhere along the line though, I’ve lost that ability, to the extent that my life has now become littered with people who haven’t quite ‘made the grade,’ while the number of people who do make the cut become smaller and smaller.

At the end, it is always a choice. Living like this means a life lived from fear – a fear of rejection and hurt – a life lived from our lower rather than higher selves.  Better, I think, to force open our hearts once again, to live with courage and conviction and love, to remain open to life and to new people and all the challenges they may bring. If the heart is a muscle, as they say, only practice and exposure will strengthen it.

Overprotect it and it will wither away and slowly die.