By now everyone knows that “heart” is a verb as well as a noun. Thanks to icons and texting, we have another way to say "I Love You" this Valentine’s Day.
When we speak about loving, we usually mean cherishing, feeling strong affection or attachment. At its best, love is a good thing to carry around.
But what do we really love? Another person? Higher values? Lower impulses? Things? Ourselves? Maybe a mixture of all these, if we’re honest. Depending on what we love, we could feel light and happy or burdened and encumbered.
Some years ago, Tim O’Brien wrote a moving account of what soldiers cherished most as they trudged, marched, crawled and ran to confront their enemies during the Vietnam War. The Things They Carried, he called it. Objects found in the soldiers’ pockets included things as frivolous as candy wrappers, but also things as meaningful as a mother’s letter or a girlfriend’s picture. The things they loved, thought about, and were willing to give mental, emotional and physical space to, were the things they carried.
Did they feel their loads were heavy, or did they think these dear things were worth their weight? Maybe these things lightened their load on fearful and dangerous journeys. These pleasant, happy things must have helped the otherwise heavy thoughts of fear, loneliness, and an inability to share their experiences with people who would never understand this strange new kind of war. As O’Brien puts it:
“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
Many years ago, my friend Pat was carrying a lot as she fought a battle of sorts. She was carrying around a lot of anxiety. She was also carrying around a lot of extra weight. She probably loved the food, but didn’t love the worried thoughts. As a sincere student of the Bible, Pat prayed for relief from worry. She prayed for the comforting presence of the Christ. She knew Jesus’ reassuring words, “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mathew 12:29-30)
Suddenly a feeling of well-being came so strongly and quickly that she said it was just like turning from the shadows into the light. She felt unburdened. The worry and stress left and she dropped all the extra weight within weeks, no dieting needed.
Because overweight and stress are twin elements of poor health, Pat’s experience is significant. In the Journal of Stress and Health, there is discussion of 13 different stress-related issues, including the effects of stress on weight, hypertension, cancer, AIDS and coronary heart disease, among others. Recommended methods to reduce stress and improve health include mindfulness or thought-based practices like meditation (sometimes associated with prayer), behavioral modification and “cognitive restructuring.”
In a more personal account in The Wall Street Journal, writer Melinda Beck chronicles her own journey through stress and poor health in “Stress So Bad It Hurts—Really.” She’s been heartened to hear that experts at Duke University’s Medical Center no longer disregard the power of thought in health. As Director Christopher Edwards puts it, “Now we recognize that what happens in the brain affects the body.”
In other words, the things we cherish and carry around in thought really do matter.
I’m hoping to lighten my mental load. I’m thinking it’s OK to carry a sweet memory of my son’s Good Citizenship award, or his sisters’ giggles before they went to sleep. It’s not OK to ruminate over-- or carry around-- worry, hurt feelings over a careless remark or even a sense of injustice over imagined wrongs. These things are not loving or lovely. Instead, I’ll pray more to carry only the things I really love to love: thoughts of faith, family, friendship, healing and other blessings.
I’ll heart those good things-- for Valentine's Day and beyond.
(Cynthia Barnett is the Media/Legislative Representative for the The Christian Science Committee on Publication, NC.)