Matters of the Heart

by Sabyn Javeri Jillani

Sometimes it’s the anatomical heart, a muscle the size of a fist, pumping furiously to keep us alive, at other times it is the beating of the metaphorical heart that leads us astray. Fact or fiction, real or symbolic, the heart is central to the story of our lives. The heart is what connects us, what leads us, or misleads us. Heartbreaks, heartaches, heart to hearts, heartening and heartfelt, the heart is central to our emotions, and to our bodies. Although its bodily function is often underplayed in place of its emotional one, be it art, literature, cinema or even emojis. Like most people, I too had grown up associating the heart with recklessness, with spontaneity and intuition, and with love and sorrow rather than stability and strength.

And so when I recently went through a melancholic time in my life, I thought of myself as heartbroken. Little did I know that heartbreak could manifest itself medically too. For the last few days, every time I felt aggrieved, I felt my heart slam against my chest as if it was trying to break free of the hollow cavity that contained it. At other times when I felt anxious, my heart too felt overwhelmed as the world was closing in on me. Every time I thought of the anguish, I felt as if my heart was folding in on itself and sinking towards my stomach. At other times when the heartbreaking thought of losing someone I loved became too much to bear, I felt as if my heart was splitting in two, my pulse slowing down, my palms becoming cold.

The writer in me felt that I had finally began to understand the appeal of the heart to artists and poets alike. I found myself reading Ghalib’s famous verse: 

Dil-e-naadaa tujhe huaa kyaa hai
Akhir is dard ki davaa kyaa hai
Ham hai mushtaaq aur vo bezaar
Yaa ilaahi, ye maajaraa kyaa hai
(O unruly heart, what is the matter with you?
What, after all, is the cure for this malady of the heart?)

Fortunately for me, friends who were less poetic felt I should put down Diwan-e- Ghalib and go see a cardiologist. 

At the doctors, I found myself attached to all sorts of wires that measured and metered my heart and pulse. The doctor talked in the most unromantic terms about the heart, reducing it to just another bodily organ such as the liver or the spleen. He spoke as if it was not the center of love and romance but some dull mechanical tool regulating a most tedious and routine bodily function. He may as well have been describing the function of the bowels! It made me wonder, if the heart was indeed such a utilitarian part of the body, where had it gained its unruly reputation? And was the connection between my heartbreak and my heart palpitations a mere coincidence? Or was there some co-relation between heartache and the biological heart after all? 

I remembered how at my engagement 20 years ago someone had told me that the reason you put the ring on the ring finger (which is called thus) is because the vein of the finger goes right to the heart. I remembered how our wedding cake had been heart-shaped and how a large heart made out of roses had been plastered on the bonnet of the car that took us home. Red hearts had greeted us everywhere from the entrance of the house to the door of our room, perhaps because in every culture one commonality is the association of the heart with love. Both myth and tradition are full of references to the heart as the carrier of eternal affection. And maybe that is why the breaking of a relationship is also symbolically associated with the breaking of a heart in two.

Heartbreak, they say, is the passage to adulthood. We all go through it. But when the metaphorical becomes physical how do we transition? Why is it so hard to accept that the symbolic red heart with an arrow piercing it is actually a biological part of our bodies, perhaps the most reliable and steady organ which, unlike its reputation, is one of the most dependable parts of our body. In literature as well as in popular culture, the heart is often described as sentimental, irrational and illogical, relying on instinct rather than reason. It’s portrayed as naughty and wayward, always trying to distract us while the brain or the head, being the logical rational one, tries to reason with it. This divide between the heart and brain is as deep as Huntington’s clash of civilization.

Similarly, Maria Popova in her Brain Pickings column (n.a) traces how, as far back as the ancient Greeks, lyric poetry identified love with the heart. She writes how among the earliest known Greek examples, the poet Sappho agonized over her own “mad heart” quaking with love. Sappho, a female philosopher, often ignored in history and philosophy, especially in college courses, lived during the 7th century BC on the matriarchal island of Lesbos. She wrote passionate poems for her fellow female citizens, now known only in fragments, such as: Love shook my heart, Like he wind on the mountain Troubling the oak-trees.

Plato, too, associated the heart with dominant emotions. He argued that these emotions reside in the chest and there are many references in his dialogues about the role of the chest in love and in negative emotions of fear, anger, rage and pain. Aristotle expanded the role of the heart even further, granting it supremacy in all human processes.

Marilyn Yalom in her book The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love (2018) explores how the  symmetrical symbol of the heart shape as we know it first began to appear during the 15th century, on luxury items like brooches and pendants. The heart icon became associated with symbols of romance and Pierre Sala’s book of poems written for his married lover, Margaret Bullious,  Emblèmes et Devises d’amour, or Love Emblems and Mottos around 1500, further cemented the heart’s reputation as a symbol of love. And by the 17th century, Valentine’s day had become firmly associated with the heart shaped expression of love. Evidence of early European and American valentines, sheets of paper folded and sealed with wax and left on the lover’s doorstep still exist in museums. The first commercial valentines appeared in England at the end of the 18th century, printed and engraved or made on woodcuts. Though by the 19th century industrialization helped give it a commercial push. By the 20th century the heart was not just an adjective to describe love but also a verb. ‘I heart NY’ first appeared in 1977 thanks to graphic Milton Glaser. And by the 21st century the heart had been reduced to an emoji, a substitute for words. These days, be it an occasion requiring a thank you or a sorry or a congratulations, one can text back a heart and leave it to the receiver to gauge the context. There are now around 30 different emojis containing a heart that you can take your pick from. And I suspect there are more in the pipeline. There are no such fun emojis or pictures for the brain. In fact, many people find drawings of the brain, queasy and uneasy to look at. The heart meanwhile is always presented as perfectly red and shiny. Both brain and heart are vital organs of the body yet when a relationship breaks down we say we are heartbroken. But when we are confused or unable to progress we often say we are brain dead. Is the heart, then, also a symbol of hope? For as Antoine de Saint-Exupey wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Our heads can lead us to logical rational decisions but they can’t erase that feeling of discomfort or instill the feeling of security that comes only when your heart is in it. The heart is central to our bodies and it is no accident that it manifests itself emotionally as well for as Rumi said:

The heart is the substance, and the world the accident:
how should the heart’s shadow be the object of the heart’s desire?
Is that pure heart the heart that is enamored of riches or power,
or is submissive to this black earth and water of the body,
or to vain fancies it worships in the darkness for the sake of fame?
The heart is nothing but the Sea of Light:
is the heart the place of vision of God–and then blind?

At the doctors, as I watched my heart beat a steady, monotonous rhythm on the monitor, I couldn’t help but wonder, if like love it was the most misunderstood part of our anatomy. When relationships go wrong, a lot of it has to do with misunderstandings and miscommunications. Is that also the case with the way we think about the heart? Why do we portray the heart as wayward and irrational? And why do we associate grief and sorrow with heartbreak, when the physical breaking of a heart would mean certain death? Perhaps because what the heart really represents is that love is central to our existence. Without love, we would all die. Just like we would stop breathing if our heart stopped beating, when love leaves us a part of us dies. We grieve for it. We try to revive it. We deny it and gradually we come to accept; it but we are never the same again. Never whole. The crack we see running through the heart as a symbol of heart break is perhaps a reminder of the fault lines that appear in our emotions every time we lose or let go of someone we love. Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love (2006) understood something when, speaking of heart break she wrote, ‘This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.”

Many years ago I wrote a story titled, Malady of the Heart, in which a young woman goes to a Hakeem and is diagnosed with the fatal disease of lovesickness which the spiritual healer deems the incurable (love) sickness of the heart. As I go through more tests and wait for the doctors to tell me their diagnosis, I wonder if mine too is a malady of the heart. If so, I find myself thinking of Lord Byron, who famously said, ‘The heart will break, but the broken live on’.

Whatever the medical diagnosis, one thing seems clear to me now. Just like its counterpart, the soul, exists symbolically for those who choose to believe in it, our hearts too can be just an organ performing a bodily function to keep us alive or our hearts can be the ones that lead the way. Perhaps the connection between the biological and metaphorical heart is not about what connects it but about what you believe in.