Minneapolis burns. A man in Nashville called Johnny Cash’s granddaughter a liberal pussy for wearing a mask during a pandemic. Infected Republican legislators knowingly exposed Democratic legislators to COVID-19. The president takes to Twitter to complain about Twitter, when he’s not tweeting racism and incitements to violence. Tens of millions are out of work. People are paying their rents on credit cards, and are likely to be unable to do that much longer. Police murder Black Americans with impunity while right wing reactionaries are treated with kid gloves as they enter state houses with long rifles strapped to their thick backs. Even otherwise decent people scoff at wearing masks or social distancing, saying that they’re unlikely to die from the virus.
Our hearts are broken.
This doesn’t mean we are sad, although many of us – a great many of us, more than you might think based on the incessant negativity online and in the news – are. What it means is that the part of us that can feel and give love is broken. It doesn’t work. It’s clogged up, and we are trapped inside an illusion of separation, inside a self-centered place where we think we are protecting ourselves, but where we are actually killing ourselves.
“When you became Denise, I told all of your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.”
In Twin Peaks: The Return Gordon Cole, now Deputy Director of the FBI, speaks these words to Denise Bryson, now FBI Chief of Staff. Cole’s referring to the fact that the character, when introduced in the original Twin Peaks, had presented as a man but, over the course of her arc, come to understand that she was a woman. Today living – and clearly thriving – as a woman, she has had to deal with the snide comments and disdain of her colleagues, buttoned up FBI agents who couldn’t understand a trans person as anything but a deviant or a freak.
David Lynch plays Cole, and usually it’s a mistake to assume that a filmmaker is putting their own thoughts in the mouths of their characters, even the ones they play. I doubt Martin Scorsese shares the views of the lunatic he plays in Taxi Driver, for instance. But in this scene, with this character, with this filmmaker, I feel strongly that David Lynch is speaking directly to us.
While Cole is talking specifically about this one issue, this one situation, David Lynch is speaking to us on a larger level. Not only a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation but a straight up evangelist for it, Lynch believes in the idea of healing ourselves as a way of healing the world. In all contemplative practices the main concept is that the only way out is in.
When our hearts are broken – when they need fixing, as Cole has diagnosed those clown colleagues – we become trapped inside of ourselves. Our hearts are the way we connect with the world, with others, and if we cannot use them, whether because they are busted or whether because we have hidden them behind walls of hate and anger and fear, we become disconnected from others. We lose our place in the world.
You see this in the mask mockers. Their only thoughts are for themselves – that they don’t like the mask, or that they don’t feel like they’re at risk. Because their hearts don’t work they can’t see that the mask is a way of showing concern for others. In fact, because of the state of their hearts – broken or walled up – they believe that showing concern for others is a weakness.
You see it in the people who tut-tut the uprising in Minneapolis. At this point I have lost track of how many Black Americans, especially Black men, especially unarmed Black men, have been murdered by police in my lifetime. I have lost track of how many I have seen murdered by police on video. I have lost track of the great American snuff project of filming the murders of Black men and using those videos as ways to allow well-meaning white people to display their empathy, for a moment at least, before returning to other matters, like calling the police on Black people who might be inconveniencing them.
When a person is more upset about the destruction of buildings than they are about the murders of people, their hearts need fixing. They have lost sight of the true value of things; buildings and businesses can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be resurrected.
When a person believes that there’s no problem with the way police interact with Black communities, their hearts need fixing. When a person blames the murder victim for not following the orders of the paramilitary killer who choked the life out of them, who put bullets in their back, who burst into the wrong home in the middle of the night and butchered them in their groggy confusion, their hearts need fixing. When a person accepts that the rules of engagement to open fire in Middle East war zones are more strict than the rules of engagement to open fire in the streets of American cities, their hearts need fixing. (And when they accept that we are opening fire in the Middle East… their hearts need fixing)
Some hearts are broken. They cannot feel correctly. Their connectors are busted, perhaps by previous trauma, perhaps by cultural conditioning. Very few people are born with hearts that don’t work – we help them break their own hearts. We teach them how. We do it for them.
Some hearts are hidden. They are behind thick concrete barriers, because their owners are afraid to feel with them. It’s safer to maintain a distance, whether it be ironic or cynical. It’s less dangerous to just not approach any of it, to keep it out of sight, because to look at it would force them to reckon with it. And reckoning with it would be painful.
Feeling things is painful. It’s scary. That’s why the vulnerable person is the bravest person – they have the most opportunity to be hurt. But the armored person is blind, and cut off. They can’t feel anything, they can’t see anything, and they can do nothing. They’re entombed.
Fix your hearts or die. We are dying. We are seeing the death all around us, and it’s happening at every level, a fractal image of unworking hearts facilitating death from the streets of our cities to the very biospheres of our planet. People who do not or cannot care about other people are facilitating death everywhere, not just allowing it but actively pursuing it.
There are structural solutions to all of these problems. None of them – not a single one – is unsolvable. We put humans on a giant can of fuel, exploded the fuel, and sent them flying to the Moon. We can stop police officers from killing unarmed Black men in the streets. The physics of this are, frankly, much simpler to overcome.
But all of these structural solutions are only possible when the majority of us have working hearts. Society is a mass delusion – we all accept things the way they are. Money is an illusion, and we all live lives governed by this illusion, by this narrative that we tell each other. Once money was a precious metal, then it was paper, now it’s just a concept – it’s a series of numbers stored in a digital database. I spend money on my phone by having the camera scan my face. It’s just made up.
Money is only the craziest of the shared delusions we all have. The most prevalent one is that the way things are is the way things have to be. We’re all participating in the system, which requires our participation to continue. It exists because we believe it exists, and we allow it to exist because we cannot see another way.
If enough of us fixed our hearts things would change. But the truth is that I cannot change anyone’s heart. I cannot fix anyone’s heart. I cannot tell them how to do it. I cannot tell them they are wrong, that they are not only harming others but that they’re also harming themselves. No matter how much I scold people on social media, no matter how many people I yell at, no matter how many family members I block on Facebook or how many times I explain to someone they’re a fucking racist, I cannot fix their hearts. Even Gordon Cole could only advise those clowns to fix their hearts, he could not do it for them.
The only heart I can fix is my own. It, like theirs, is broken. It, like theirs, is armored. It, like theirs, tells me I’m alone, that I have to get mine, that I have to watch out for myself, that I have to not feel things because the emotions are too big, that I can’t let anyone in because they might hurt me, that I can’t take on the system because how will I eat, where will I sleep.
There are people with whole hearts. I have met them. I have experienced the feeling of being bathed in their attention and their love. It’s transformative. You’ve probably met them, too. There are people walking among us who have done the work, and there are even some walking among us who just got there on their own. But there are not enough of them.
“If you really want to disrupt the system, start by reclaiming your own body.”
That’s Lama Rod Owens, a Black, queer spiritual leader recognized in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The work of changing the world begins with you. For him it’s a lot about acknowledging and engaging the intersectionality of identities with which he approaches the world, while maintaining a Buddhist interest in not becoming attached or identified with any one of them. This is the first step to fixing our hearts – reclaiming our bodies and our identities. When we have worked on ourselves – when we have reclaimed who we are, when we have taken action on fixing our hearts – then we can be of service to others, and then we can model for other people what wholeness looks like. Or at least give them a glimpse of what wholeness can be.
We must disrupt the system. This is a moment for it. The truth is that the upheaval we are experiencing will, one way or another, end. Some day not long from now people will get up and go about their days and not think too much about the president or about uprisings or about the suffering of others. The choice we have is whether that happens because we have made strides in solving these problems or if that will happen because we have all gone back to sleep. What we’re living through today isn’t dissimilar from the America of 1968, but look at where America was by 1978 – soft rock and disco, Quaaludes and Battle of the Network Stars. The revolution had receded.
The best way to disrupt the system in the long run is to disrupt what the system has done to us, and what we have done to ourselves to fit within the system. This isn’t to say that protests and uprisings and voting and education of others don’t matter, but all of those things are built on a foundation of sand if our hearts are not working. All of those things will fall away, and in thirty or fifty years the people will find themselves here again, reliving these conflicts and these horrors, and a few new ones for added measure, because the heart of our society just doesn’t work.
Society is not a thing outside of us. It is us. We can change it by changing ourselves.
I cannot tell you how to fix your heart. It’s your heart, only you know. I can tell you some of what I have been doing to fix mine. I have listened to people like Lama Rod Owens and Brené Brown. I have practiced insight meditation. I have gone to therapy. I have made ethical vows about how to live my life, and I have worked to stick with those vows (and given myself compassion when I have failed to live up to those vows, rather than giving myself anger and thus making it unlikely I would attempt to live up to them again). I have listened to people of other genders, sexualities, identities and races who have made me uncomfortable and I have examined why they make me uncomfortable. I have tried to be aware of my reactions to things, and I have questioned why I feel the way I do. I have gone to 12 Step meetings and shared my experience, strength and hope, and I’ve partaken of the experience, strength and hope of others. I’ve done dumb small things, like wearing a pink bandana as a facial covering because my 1980s Cro-Magnon self identifies pink with non-masculinity and I am trying to attack my own concepts of gender and masculinity, and I have done bigger things, like spend time with folks experiencing homelessness and fed them and listened to them. I have written here as honestly as I can about my own struggles through all of this, trusting that somewhere there is someone who will identify with it, no matter how dopey it makes me seem. I have tried to be vulnerable, and I can only be vulnerable because I know there are people who hate me and will mock me or dismiss me. I have accepted these people as teachers, who give me the space to express my vulnerability.
Things are bad, perhaps historically so. To deny that would be foolish. Things are scary, and to deny that would also be foolish. But it’s when things are bad and when things are scary that we are called upon to show up, and to show up with all the wholeness we have. And it’s never too late to show up, and it’s never too late to fix your heart. These are bad, scary days, but they are also great days, because they offer us the opportunity to wake up and make changes we need to make.
Fix your heart or die. Those are the options.