“Have a heart that never hardens,
and a temper that never tires,
and a touch that never hurts”
In the context of reflecting upon my 65th birthday this past December, I came across this quote from Charles Dickens’s last novel, Our Mutual Friend. My ponderings on these words continued into the arena usually reserved for New Year’s resolutions.
Dickens’s phrase took me by surprise for its deep insight into what it means to be fully human, its crystalline clarity, and its sheer succinctness. After 40 years of studying the unfolding of human potential, I can’t think of a way of saying it better or briefer. In short, I thought it was brilliant.
It also stopped me short. Despite all the consonance with this statement theoretically, the dissonance with my experience is palpable. I shall try to explain.
My 65th birthday has been a time of contemplation regarding my relationship to work. I have been fortunate in that while I have always had to work for a living, I have seldom thought of what I was doing as work. So when it came to that time when most working people yearn for more “want to’s” in their life than “have to’s,” it only requires a slight shift in thinking on my part to get there. I now intend to ‘play’ instead of ‘work’, which really shouldn’t result in doing anything differently than what I have been doing.
That part was relatively easy. When I look at my life in terms of realizing my full potential as a human being, this is another story altogether. I feel like I am only at the beginning of this mysterious journey. Sixty-five puts me officially into the senior years, which means that there is a lot of growing up to do and very little time, relatively speaking, in which to do it.
Now let me return to why I think this quote brilliant and why it becomes my ultimate yearning as well as captures my theoretical thinking.
The ‘heart that never hardens’ gets to the essence of the prerequisite condition for the unfolding of human potential. Emotion is the engine of development. Yes emotion, not behaviour, not cognition, not consciousness, not intention, not even love. What developmental science has uncovered is that our brain can only move us to mature when we feel our emotions, especially the most vulnerable ones. Unfortunately it is in our tender feelings that we also sense our insecurities, our wounds, and our fragility. Any defense against these feelings becomes a hindrance to our true growth. It is not easy to face life with a soft heart.
The ‘temper that never tires’ speaks to the finishing touch of the developmental process: the mixing of conflicting feelings, thoughts, impulses and perceptions. We now know that the prefrontal cortex is the mixing bowl of the brain and can continue development well into adulthood if conditions are conducive. We also know that corpus callosum (the bridge between our two hemispheres) is the key to being able to apply our full brain to solving life’s problems and also requires a development. In other words, to truly grow up we need to leave the felt safety of pure certainty and live in the middle of our conflicting thoughts and feelings. This is not easy to do in the best of times and much harder to do when we are tired than when refreshed. It means opening ourselves up to all that is within us, even those aspects that conflict with our values, and even the feelings that conflict with our intentions.
The ‘touch that never hurts’ speaks to the ability to be ourselves in the context of others, yet without unnecessary wounding. Sometimes it is impossible but nevertheless should be our aim. To do this requires great consciousness and consideration of both self and other. This also is not an easy accomplishment.
Which brings me to explain why these attributes cannot be realized through resolution alone. In short, we cannot mature by commanding ourselves to grow up, or by demanding it, or even by willing it. While maturation is a spontaneous process, it is certainly not inevitable. So we are left to yearn and to hope that our yearning will bear fruit. But what do we yearn for?
After years of study of how development unfolds, I have become convinced that the ‘touch that never hurts’ is the fruit of a ‘temper that never tires’ which only becomes possible when there is a ‘heart that never hardens.’ Hence the brilliance of this pithy phrase.
So as I encounter yet another New Year but for the first time as an official ‘senior,’ I find myself full of new yearnings to ‘have a heart that never hardens’ and full of new hope that my potential is still unfolding.