“Last Christmas”: Wisdom of the Heart

A friend is at work on a book* which addresses the Western view of the heart as a mechanical pump that can, if necessary, be repaired or even replaced, much like how I recently had the water pump in my car replaced. I’ve been beta-reading this as her book coach, and I asked her, “how much does this attitude, that we’re made up of parts that can be repaired or replaced in the “doctor shop,” affect the way we take care of ourselves?”It struck me how opposite this attitude toward our own bodies is with how most of us take care of our children, our pets, even each other–we try to make sure those we love eat the right food, get the necessary exercise, and educating/training them so they can function well in the world. Then we sit on the couch,  overeat,  and stuff our minds with reality television (which portrays no “reality” that I recognize or want to be part  of).

The difference is, I suspect, that even though we think of bodies as machines, when it comes to individuals in bodies, we love them. Okay, some of us also love our machines; I keep pouring money into fixing up my 26-year-old Subaru because I love her. (Note the “her” — she’s a person to me.) I’m attached. Maybe not quite in the same way as I’m attached to people or my animals, but as with them I am on the alert for signs of a problem and I do all I can to keep her running well and to prevent more problems.

I’m better at this with my car and the creatures I love than I am with taking care of myself. For lots of reasons — the entire field of psychology is founded upon this — I don’t love myself in the same way that I love others, with a tender care.  Only recently have I even become pragmatic  about my body in the way I am with my car, thinking “if I do this now, it will cost less in the long run.”

I suspect I’m not unusual here. And it makes sense that if we don’t really love ourselves, if we are not as tenderly attached to our own being as we are to other beings, it becomes easier to consider our bodies in that mechanical way, to think “eh, it’s too much bother to floss, if I get a cavity the dentist can just fix it” or “I know I should exercise and eat less sugar, but if I get diabetes, there’s a pill for that” — at the same time that we urge our friends to take better care of themselves.

My friend’s book challenges the mechanistic view of the heart, arguing that the heart — and the body it is an inextricable part of — has its own wisdom, a wisdom that we can work with for healing without having to call in the mechanics, the cardiologists and surgeons and physical therapists. We already have the techniques. They’ve been offered for centuries in what she calls the “wisdom traditions”: soul-invoking spiritual and meditative practices, breathing techniques, art, dreamwork, and “active imagination” (a process that allows dialogue with our own inner selves often used in depth psychology).

The trailer for “Last Christmas,” written by Emma Thompson and Greg Wise, presents the film as yet another feel-good holiday rom-com. It is not. This is a movie about feeling cut off from one’s family and roots, from the society around one, from passion for one’s work and calling. At the bottom of all this disconnect is a profound disconnect from one’s own being, the body that houses the soul. We find out, eventually, that the main character, Kate (Emilia Clarke), has suffered a major trauma that literally disconnected her from her heart. Since then she has lost her grip on almost every aspect of her life, burnt almost all her bridges. When we meet her she is homeless and miserable. We learn that she is doing the opposite of everything she should be doing to heal: eating poorly, drinking too much, not sleeping. She has only one touchstone, the boss (Michelle Yeoh) at the Christmas shop where she works as a clerk, who masks her concern under biting comments on everything Kate does wrong, but does not fire her.

Then Kate meets a mysterious man (Henry Golding), who seems to show up only at the worst moments in her life. He pushes her to get connected again, to look up, to look around her and notice the world again. In the Haudenosaunee (a/k/a Iroquois) tradition, when someone has suffered a grievous loss, the people sit with them for a couple of days and mourn along with them. But on the third day of the ritual, they pull the person outside, say “look at the children playing, see your neighbors smiling and talking, come eat with us, come sing with us, come dance with us.” They make room for grief, but then they help the person to reconnect.

One of my favorite movies of all time, “Truly Madly Deeply,” evokes this grief ritual. The main character is so lost in grief for her dead lover that she pulls the realm of the dead into her flat so she can be with his shade again. But this is not life. She is recalled eventually by a new love, a man who engages her in silly ways that make her laugh against her will, who wakes her up from her undead life and demands that she come out of her flat, out of her grief, and walk again in the sunshine. In the climactic scene, she makes the conscious choice to live.

Kate is recalled to life in a similar way. Challenged by her mystery man, she begins to build new connections over the ruins of the old bridges she destroyed. She begins helping other people who are more disconnected than she is — the homeless — and eventually finds a way to use her talents in a new way that benefits others. This reawakens her passion for living. But before she can come fully to life again, she must grieve that most profound disconnect, the loss of her own heart. She has to heal her heart from the inside out, but she can only do that after she allows her heart to speak to her, to give her its wisdom. When she allows herself to heal, she is able to heal her relationships and bring her own, disconnected family back together. In the final scene they are eating, singing, and dancing  together.


*Keep an eye out for MetaHeart by Anne Ruitberg Taylor, PhD.

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