The Bleeding Heart
My heart bleeds.
It bleeds over children in cages, children molested, children neglected and children traumatized. It bleeds for refugees and unloved animals. It bleeds for dead deer and squirrels on the side of the road. It bleeds for the grandchildren — everyone’s grandchildren — and the grandchildren to come who must deal with the consequences reckless consumption has had on our planet. It bleeds for the generational trauma of Native Americans and African Americans and the rotting civil justice system and systemic racism that continues to harm them to this day. It bleeds for women who have been gunned down in their own homes at the hands of their partners and the teens gunned down at their desks. It bleeds for every little girl who is told to be ladylike and every little boy who is told to man up. It bleeds for our Republic and the erosion of democracy worldwide.
It bleeds… well, you get the idea.
It wasn’t always this way. Though I’ve always been sensitive and empathetic, youth and then early motherhood blunted my perceptions. In other words, during the first two thirds of my life, I was either too self-absorbed or too child focused to really experience the full impact of my bleeding heart. Apparently, my heart’s making up for lost time. Or maybe I’m just in what psychoanalyst Erik Erickson called the Generativity Stage. People in this stage long to make the world a better place for the coming generations.
I remember a time when the term bleeding heart was used with as much derision as the term snowflake is now. Coined in the 1930s by journalist James Westbrook Pegler, who had a singular disdain for labor unions and New Deal reform, it was used to denigrate a person who cried over the plight of others and who urged others to care, too. It was often paired with the word liberal, as in a bleeding-heart liberal.
How did our society ever get to the point where compassion for the poor is considered a weakness? Perhaps part of this attitude stems from our European roots. Remember nobility and serfs? The upper class’s treatment of the servant class? Our country, founded by European settlers, brought over their class prejudices and they still exist, in spite of the fact that we’re supposed to be the country of equal opportunity. Debtors prisons were only outlawed here in 1833 and it took 150 years later for the Supreme Court to affirm that incarcerating indigent debtors was unconstitutional under the fourteenth amendment’s equal protection law.
Even in the land of self-made millionaires and robber barons, this attitude hasn’t changed. Though our Puritan ancestors disdained nobility, they also disdained anyone unable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps and that belief survives to this day. If you aren’t successful, it must mean you’re lazy or otherwise lacking. Later, the myth of equal opportunity in the United States was disseminated in the classrooms along with truck loads of revisionist history about class and race. When Ronald Regan used the term Welfare Queen, it was just one of many assaults on the poor and people of color by the rich and the white. The fact that this attitude is now weaponized by the lower classes against others of their same economic class illustrates just how pervasive the propaganda is. Yes, I’m aware that tribalism, racism and abundance versus scarcity mindset also play roles in our cultural disdain of the poor, as does our widely held proclivity for victim blaming. Yet, I maintain that generational class bias is just as real as generational poverty. We propagate this attitude by othering people. Maybe we’re taught to. After all, if the lower and middle classes are kept busy fighting amongst themselves, then they can’t rise up against those really pulling the strings.
So how did our cultural derision of the poor extend to those who cared about the poor? If you look up various definitions of bleeding heart, the words overly or excessively compassionate abound. Now, I have to ask…can you be too compassionate about children in cages? Can your heart hurt too much for families displaced by war and violence and desperate to get their children to safety? How about the outrageous number of children who go to school hungry? I don’t know about you, but that shiz makes my heart bleed.
While the origins of the term bleeding heart may be interesting, the reality of it…not so much. It hurts to have a heart that bleeds. The news is a constant assault on someone who feels “excessively” for other humans. The problem is that once you’re awakened to injustice and the pain of others, you can’t unsee it. I visit ghost towns and instead of thinking of the plucky pioneers, my heart breaks for the indigenous people they displaced and killed. I see confederate flags flying and think of how hurtful that must be for black Americans. I’m called too sensitive and too easily offended. Excuse me if I think classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and racism are offensive.
They are. They just are. How we treat and think about other humans matters.
I’ve found a few ways that help me combat the pain of a bleeding heart and I share them here:
· I started being proactive. I joined groups and organizations fighting against injustice and for humans and the environment. Since I’m so busy and can’t join everything I’d like, I give monthly micro donations to a few of my favorites. It helps.
· I got political. I found a couple local candidates who had the same values as mine and I canvassed for them. I also wrote hundreds of postcards for various campaigns.
· I followed people and groups on social media who are on the front lines. It’s heartening to realize that there is good in the world combating the bad.
· I educated myself. I read widely from a multitude of sources. I took sociology classes at the community college and attended lectures given by powerful women. I’ve been to more townhalls and meetings from my local and national representatives than ever before. I encouraged friends and family to join me.
· I take breaks for self-care. Long term solutions require long term work. I can’t do that if I’m exhausted and burnt out. Learning how to take a media break has been instrumental in staying sane.
· I followed the Americans of Conscious checklist to get more actionable items.
· I meditate. A lot.
· I use deep breathing when things get overwhelming.
Yes, I’m a bleeding heart. I care. I care because I love humanity and I want the world to be a better place for all the grandchildren. It hurts and it’s uncomfortable, but it also spurs me to action. To help when I can. To be of service when I can. That sounds so pretentious, but it’s also the truth for me and many of my female contemporaries. So many of them serve in different ways. One friend of mine recently joined her local planning commission to have an impact on the quality of life in her community. Another has thrown herself headlong in learning about sustainable farming and food production. Still others are involved in local politics. One good friend of mine spends time at a hospital every week holding babies born premature and drug addicted. Just holding them. Loving them.
Bleeding hearts, all.
For me, this essay isn’t just about admitting that I’m a bleeding heart or even about fighting to change the perception and prejudice about us bleeding hearts. It’s just about me, one woman, learning to embrace it.