Connecting the Head and the Heart

by Marilyn on March 2, 2015


Photo Credit: Stefanie Sevim Gardner


I heard difficult news last night, and suddenly all the world is blanketed in loss. I can barely breathe from the heaviness. This loss — it suffocates so it is all I can see, all I can think about.

There is so much loss in a life of movement. There are the tangible, concrete things like packing up and leaving material things and houses behind. That favorite stuffed animal that just couldn’t fit…because your child had so many other favorites that you packed instead. That doll house, now sitting on your friend’s shelf, ready to be presented to her daughter on the next birthday. The books that, in the absence of close friends, were your best friends for a while. The family pet, unable to go because the next place you will call home has strict quarantine laws.

Then there are the intangible losses. Loss of place. Someone else will live in your beloved home. Someone will have your bedroom, look out your window, wander in your rose garden. Someone else will take your place in a small group. You will hear about new people coming and your friends will tell you “You would love them!” You laugh and say “That’s great!” but inside you think how can I be replaced so quickly, so finally.

All of this piles on me as I drive, looking out on a dark world of winter. What is it about winter that accentuates the losses? All the world feels loss in winter. Wasn’t that the horror of Narnia under the spell of the white witch? “Always winter and never Christmas.”

I know in my head that God is the answer. I know in my head that God, personified in Christ, knows the pain of loss. That Jesus came willingly, gave up all that was rightfully his, “emptying” himself our scriptures say. But connecting the head and the heart? That’s my struggle.

For a long time, my husband worked with scientists in translational genomics. A well-known saying in genomic research is “From bench to bedside.” Researchers know that if their findings are confined to the laboratory alone, the research will never affect patients and change their lives. People are often desperate for a treatment that will save a life or offer a better quality of life. If the research just sits on slides and under microscopes, its use is severely limited. Thus the phrase “bench to bedside” – from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside.

The phrase is a reminder of the need to link theory to practice.

I realize as I feel the suffocation of loss that I am having a bench to bedside moment. There is a massive disconnect between laboratory science (my head) and the patient (my heart). My head knows truth. I know by head some great theological truths that can comfort someone in loss. Somewhere in the memory part of my brain are the words:*

  • “For I know the plans I have for you”, says the Lord. “Plans to prosper you, not to harm you. To give you hope and a future.”
  • “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of my God, my fortress and my strength. My God in whom I trust.”
  • “For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”

I know by head all these truths, but because of pain that’s where it stops. My memory bank is full, but my heart is empty and surrounded by ice. The words mean nothing and have no way of giving comfort. They are just words. The head and the heart seem to be in different bodies. The verses I know feel like “Job’s comforters,” spouting theology and accusations void of wisdom.

There are a couple of things I have noticed about a heart surrounded by ice.

First I can’t parent properly. Whether it is a scraped knee from a biking accident or a scraped heart from a prom date, the emotional energy is frozen and can’t be applied where most needed.

Secondice takes a long time to melt. Outside my front door is a seven-foot mound of evidence. Frozen ponds and tree branches, icicles hanging from tall buildings and slick sidewalks are all evidence of the danger of ice and the time it takes to melt.

Third a heart that is frozen assumes that it has a market on loss and pain. No other loss could be so terrible, no other pain so unbearable. Mine is the worstor so my frozen heart tells me.

So what’s the solution to the great head/heart divide?

In the past I have found the only way to melt the ice surrounding my heart is the gentle warmth of the spirit of God. For me to be able to live out the truth that my head knows, my heart has to be melted and rejoined to my head, a grueling and terrible process filled with tears and “whys” but essential for me to move on. It’s sometimes like surgery with no anesthesia and I want to scream through it. But the warmth arrives in surprising ways and places — daffodils in a jar, a phone call from a friend who knows me, words written by a stranger that bring extraordinary comfort, a meeting with a wise counselor.

God’s spirit is gentle and persistent, coming like a warm wind after a terrible winter, warming everything in its path so that the world can breathe. The warmth melts the ice and my heart can gradually beat again, seeing life through the lens of hope and faith.

“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.’ – Ravi Zacharias

How have you struggled with a head/heart connection? What ways have you found to connect your head and heart? 

*Verses from Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 91:1 & 2; Romans 8:28

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Last week a dear friend of ours was in ICU–complications of complications, really really ill. The thing is, our friend is a doctor with a head full of knowledge and years of experience (he’s even head of residents at a teaching hospital, so he teaches other doctors). But knowledge of healing is one thing, and actual healing is something else. There was no way for him to think himself out of the situation. He just had to go through the process like every other sick person has to. And I think emotional healing is much the same. We can have all kinds of knowledge, and there’s nothing wrong with a good solid theological understanding. But when we’re suffering, we’re suffering. And the only way through it is through. I am utterly convinced that Jesus said, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” to show us the way through suffering. You pour it all out before God and let him be in every dark and terrible place with you. That’s where the healing is: not in our heads with our great knowledge, but with Jesus in the deepest depths of our suffering souls. And what I’ve found is that the more I let Jesus into all the horrible places with me, and just feel how I feel, then the more I can keep my head together when I’m in the bad places. I can trust that he’s with me, even though I’m suffering.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes to this. So beautifully put Kay. Thank you. And of course, those of us with a TCK/MK background can get stuck in the head piece and feel guilt for the heart piece. Which is not helpful and not at all what God has in mind. He knows our frame – those words are amazing.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Beautifully communicated AGAIN, Marilyn. Thank-you.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you Tara – so much.

  • Rebecca L. Brees

    Just the title of today’s post at ‘Life Overseas’ made me stop and put the pause button on my day. Some days most days it is as if there is a road block between the two or should we say a check point. Sometimes there are no words to explain this feeling just two hand – one on the heart and the other on the head and nothing concrete connecting them. It is one thing to recognize the disconnect and other turn ones back to it. In the same vein I am reminded of a quote from C.S. Lewis – ‘Wrap it [heart] carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements [times where the head and the heart may have to communicate]. Lock it up safe in the casket of selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change, it will not be broken [it will be surrounded by ice]; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.’ – this is just the surface of an awesome chai conversation Marilyn. The ever present question of the building/discovery/recovery of the head heart connection.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love, love that quote Rebecca. I’m copying it down right now and you will see it in a future post – no doubt. Don’t you think in boarding school we learned early on to disconnect the head and heart? Through no one’s fault – just because it was so much easier that way? And that’s yet another long chai conversation.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Your paragraph that starts “there is so much loss in a life of movement…” caught me. The examples – yes. Being on both sides – as the one who goes and the one who stays, so much loss. Teary.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes! I know this being on both sides as well Rachel. And there are so many times where I hate it and it paralyzes me. Then the next thing I know I’m either saying goodbye, or being said goodbye to— only to go through all this again. Teary with you my friend.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I resonated with so much of this post, Marilyn. So much loss in a life of movement — even when you’re the one (temporarily) standing still. The loss of relationships is the hardest. Wondering how we can go on, and knowing we will. Yet at the same time knowing, somewhere down deep, it’s both *not right* that we go on, and *right* that we go on. Such is the Paradox of life.

    The head-heart disconnect has been one of the hardest things for me to deal with in life. There are often things I know in my head. But it’s such a long distance, much farther than it appears, down to the heart, where change happens. God is the One who thaws the frozen heart. God’s word, and God’s Spirit, they are powerful. But the time — oh the time! — it takes. I wish it were faster. And it cannot be of my own doing — I’ve tried that brute force method before.

    And of course when I am in pain I think only of my own pain. Guilty! (Wish that weren’t true, but it is.) Elinor Dashwood says to her sister Marianne, who mourned so much for Willoughby that she didn’t understand Elinor’s muted heartbreak over Edward, “What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering?” I find myself in Marianne at times, only knowing my own suffering and not feeling others’. The Paradox here is that I *must* feel my own pain in order to feel someone else’s. How to feel my pain (so I can receive healing in it) AND feel someone else’s pain (so I can extend comfort), without literally dying of a broken heart — that is the question.

    Thanks for sharing this stuff here — I think we all can relate to pain, suffering, and icy hearts — they are part of the human condition.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Oh I love this – love the words from Marianne. I do think it is part of the human condition to think our pain is harder, worse, unrelatable – and that often affects our ability to receive comfort even when it is right next to us and offered in complete love and honesty. And I love what you say about the long distance from the head to the heart! Miles and miles. Thank you for your help with this piece.

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