A close personal friend of mine recently underwent a fairly common procedure called an echocardiogram. It wasn’t common for him though, so I offered to go along for moral support. Of course my perspective as an observer was different than that of my friend the patient.
The machine’s purpose was apparent from its name – ‘echo’ as in ‘sound’, ‘cardio’ as in heart, “gram” as in “image,” from the Greek “gramma,” meaning something written or drawn. Its appearance was daunting, a super computer far more complex that any found in homes or businesses, and with a keyboard that gave new meaning to the word “confusing.” This was a highly sophisticated medical instrument that obviously required a highly skilled medical technician to operate it correctly.
The sensors were attached -painlessly- to my friend’s chest and soon the machine came alive, responding to the commands given to it. Images began to skim across the screen, showing the endless opening and closing of a what appeared to be an organic sluice gate, my friend and I and the technician all watching in real time the pulsing, rhythmic pattern of the ingeniously designed device that gave him life, from the power of thought to the simplest movement of the smallest finger on his hand. It was the heart, the very center of his being and ours too. So long as it functioned even at less than its full strength and capacity, he would as well, but when it shut down, so would he. It was unnerving to watch this constant, delicate cycle of movement, knowing how delicate and fragile it was, how easily injured it could be, all the while wondering from whence came its original spark, since no engine starts by itself.
Seeing one’s heart on a screen is one thing; knowing at some visceral level how vital yet common hearts are is another, as casually reflected in our language. We are often urged to have a heart, speak from the heart, not to be heartless, perhaps have a hearty meal, and possibly give heartfelt thanks. When we are urged to have courage, it’s actually the same as taking heart because the word “courage” is derived from the word “heart.” The cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz already has courage because -as he eventually discovers – he also has a heart.
Nonetheless, until you see your own heart in relentless motion on a screen as it pumps away in your own chest, what was abstract becomes real – real in a way that elicits a quiet and somewhat nervous acceptance that a well-designed engine is what keeps you alive in a way you’ve never appreciated. Unfortunately, this realization is tempered by the melancholy but undeniable fact that no engine lasts forever.
As my friend and I watched the moving images of his heart at its constant work, we were unsettled by a glimpse of our own mortality, and a pall of vulnerability descended over us. But then another dimension occurred when sound was added to the screen. Now we could hear the gurgle of an underground pipe or a faucet someone had apparently forgotten to turn off. But if this leak were fixed, this water stopped, the engine would cease its constant motion and this liquid’s cyclical path would come to an end. It was life’s blood itself, and now we could hear it, coursing through vein and artery, sometimes slowly, other times more quickly, but always on the move until, at some point, it would move no more.
My friend and I had been given a rare look into a well-designed, yet relatively simple device intended to last a lifetime with minimal care. and we were humbled and in awe of the mind that created it.
It was not an original thought. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” wrote the psalmist in Psalm 139, verse 14. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2, the troubled Prince speaks one of the most famous passages from the play:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god!. . .’
In our mind’s eye, we also envisioned a famous detail from The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel showing Adam receiving the spark of life from the outstretched hand of the Creator.
It all brought not only a sense of wonder and admiration, but also a deep and profound feeling of respect and humility – respect for the craftsmanship not of our own making, humility for the miraculous gift it bestowed.
We also determined to demonstrate that respect to our fellow humans and creatures with whom we share this life and planet. Though we had tried over the years, we would now re-double our efforts to choose kindness over cruelty, compassion instead of indifference, and, so far as we were able, we would not kill or cause hurt to animals or humans, and we would honor the gift of being alive by preserving and protecting it in others.
It was not a complicated lesson or a new one, but, after all, it was the point of the experience that we’d just had. It was, in fact, the very heart of the matter.