Saturday, February 21, 2015

Protecting our tough, fragile hearts

When we’re young, we think our hearts are indestructible.

We throw ourselves headlong into everything, without a thought for caution, sense or what might happen next. We date the boy who dropped out of high school to become a “famous rock star,” despite the fact that he wouldn’t know the first thing about getting an agent. We date the girl who is “too good for us” and knows it, and we spend every cent we have trying desperately to keep her attention. We tell our friends all our secrets, never imagining that we won’t be speaking to each other in just a few years.

We’re just as reckless when it comes to our physical health. Heart attacks are distant, imaginary things, as impossible to comprehend as depleted energy and failing bodies. We chow down on our triple cheeseburgers with gusto, joking about how we can “hear our arteries clogging” as we eat. Heart attacks are the things that kill grandparents, not us, and though we’ve heard the term “stroke” we’re not even entirely sure what it is.

We demand all this from an unassuming little organ about the size of a human fist, a tough but fragile thing that ancient Egyptians used to believe was the seat of the soul itself. We not only ask it to keep our bodies going for generations, far longer than we’d expect any human-built engine to keep working, but we insist on such things without giving it a second thought. As if time, or those triple cheeseburgers, won’t touch it just because we believe it won’t.

But when we get older, we realize that nothing is indestructible. This is especially true of our hearts, which never entirely rid themselves of all the marks we leave on it. We’re never quite the same person we were after falling in love with entirely the wrong person, whether it’s a lesson learned or a scar that never quite heals. Sometimes, we see ourselves differently. Other times, it’s harder to fall in love again. Even if we’re stronger in the end, we don’t bounce back in quite the same way we were before.

On a physical level, though, being careless with our hearts doesn’t just “work out in the end.” It’s said that each heart only has so many beats in it, a finite amount of strength it has to push the blood through abused arteries. The more we make it do in our reckless youth, the fewer beats we’ll have when we get old enough to appreciate them more. When we realize that time won’t just spin on forever, so we have to cherish every second we have.

The problem is, we can’t go back and grab all those heartbeats we wasted when we were younger. Faithfully taking your blood pressure medication and losing weight when you’re 40 can extend your life, but think how much further you could extend it if you lost that weight at 30. If you got a nice chicken sandwich instead of that triple cheeseburger, and maybe walked to places that were nearby instead of always taking your car. Maybe you could even put down those cigarettes and give those nicotine patches another try.

Hearts can break. Hearts can stop. We should all learn to be a little more gentle with the ones we’re given.

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