Article Grief

Listening to our Hearts

Witnessing the terrible harm that human beings are inflicting on our world (accelerating climate instability, a pandemic that is crushing human society, the unspeakable suffering of beings with whom we share our home), many find the coils of pessimism tightening around them.

How easy it is to tell ourselves that the deniers must wake up to reality; that they must do what we have already done. But a more difficult question is beginning to form in me: Can I find it in my heart to strike out on my own, whatever the evidence?

Why must I find this potential in my heart? Because my head doesn’t know how to embrace the future, unless it sees a path leading straight ahead.

My head does a good job ‘making up’ my familiar world and my heart works tirelessly to coordinate 30 billion cells, along with the organs and senses that they populate. But is this biological organ the same heart that knows sadness and love? And don’t we need the mind to realize our heart’s desire, as clouds need wind to reach the distant mountains?

My mind always seems to be preoccupied with practical matters and doesn’t seem to notice that our world is bobbing up and down like a cork in the boundless firmament. When it comes to the most important issues, my thinking mind seems oblivious to anything for which it doesn’t already have ready-made concepts.

The other morning, I received an answer to a question that my thinking mind couldn’t have asked. Now I don’t want to hand that insight over to a mind that can only identify things in terms of what is already familiar. This time, I want to know what my heart feels about it.

What was the unasked question to which a response flowed into me unbidden? I was feeling a connection between my head and heart, and my throat and gut (the four main chakras in many spiritual traditions). All four felt connected and it was then that a question appeared: “Is there a soul in here?

The pleasant sensations were familiar, but this wondering was not.

I wasn’t looking for an eternal spirit to announce itself, like the tinkling of a lost set of keys. I felt no need to locate something new inside my body, although I felt very present there. My mind simply took its hands off the wheel and relinquished control.

Now another question is surfacing. Where can I place my hopes for a brighter future? Over the past two years, I have had some experience of loss, and it has been in the shadow of that loss that I have most deeply felt my kinship with the soul of humanity.

Since the death of my son two years ago, and in the ways that I have tried to fill the emptiness he left behind, I have encountered a yearning to discover a soul inside me; since only then can I believe that my son, Jon, sailed away safely in his.

Grief is teaching me that in order to go on living, I need to nurture forgiveness for the past, respect for myself and others in the present, and a flickering flame of courage with which to face the future. I cannot do that unless I give up the sterile practice of blame; for when I blame others, I lose the ability to collaborate with them; and when I blame myself, I lose the strength to care for myself and for this beautiful world.

During the decades that I tried to help people afflicted with neuromuscular diseases (MS and ALS), I felt I was doing what I could to live a meaningful life. I even felt that I was embodying the Buddhist maxim: “Wisdom and compassion are like the two wings of a bird” (a bird that needs two wings to fly: one — a mind that sees we are bobbing in a sea where nothing lasts; and the other — a heart that cares for this sad world all the more because nothing in it lasts to nurture the beings who live here).

We can take a lesson in impermanence from Mother Earth. Trees lose their leaves and do not despair; trusting that our spinning planet will once more bring new life their way.

I take a lesson from the decades when my friend, Foster, who suffered from ALS, and with whom I co-founded Friends in Time, lived courageously with the hand he had been dealt. His example inspired the rest of us (staff, volunteers and clients); and now I too have an opportunity to embrace a future that is reeling from a devastating body blow.

In searching for a new model to follow, in my remaining days on Earth — as the health of our world flickers and tries to catch light — I take heart from the courage and creativity of those who are showing the rest of us how we too can live.

Human beings who have walked on this Earth have discovered that nothing is separated from anything else. They have understood that no chasm separates the one looking from the lost sheep for whose return we long. But head-centered people like me must keep trying to rescue their hearts from years of neglect. And living in this graveyard of mistaken loyalties to the bobbles of impermanence, I know that I am not the only one who yearns for understanding.

It may seem like a paradox that loss can fuel new beginnings, but — if the orthodox holds us fast to where we have been —paradox shows us alternatives to the consequences that are outgassing from the smokestacks of the past.

The inspiring example of courageous beings — those who are living among us and the departed whom we honor in our hearts — are sending us a message: we must care for this precious world and for all who live upon her if we ourselves are to find a doorway into the infinite possibilities of the future.

About Michael Gray

Michael Gray is the author of The Flying Caterpillar, a memoir, and the novels Asleep at the Wheel of Time, about whales, aliens, and humans, and Falling on the Bright Side, about his experience working with the disabled. He is the cofounder of Friends in Time (a nonprofit he founded with a friend who has ALS), and past board president of New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition and Pathways Academy (a school for kids with autism and other learning issues). A regular contributor to various journals, Gray also writes a weekly blog on

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