The Bleeding Torso Liberal

In the last post I mentioned how I used to think people claimed there was an opposition between having a smart mind and having a big heart, and that they wanted me to be “conservative” because that was the “smart mind” side of things.

I wanted to reject that side because I’d rather be stupid than heartless. Of course, I thought I was both compassionate and intelligent, a dutiful and righteous liberal.

Now I see how I was both stupid and heartless. And in fact my gradual change, though prompted by a series of intellectual conversions (regarding feminism, socialism, “racism,” etc), has been at its core a conversion of the heart.

My compassion for those less fortunate is more, not less, than it was as a hard-left leftist. (And I was hard left, my friends.) I feel more open to those around me even as I’ve grown more likely to shun their behavior …

… As a leftist, I was nominally compassionate but actively selfish. My blood was sprinkled through with the cement dust of resentment, and it made me dry and hard and grey inside…

… I’m not heartless now… my heart feels more alive than any time since I was a small child.

So I am no longer the starry-eyed idealist with stupid ideas, which is a typical image of the “well-meaning liberal.” I don’t know if I ever was. The light glittering in my eyes wasn’t from the stars, it was from a thousand glittering television screens, and from the war fires of a legion of Marxist academics.

I know some people who embrace the pejorative bleeding heart liberal. It’s meant as an insult, but some people, like my 20-year-old self, proudly wear it on their lapels.

“Yeah, I have sympathy and I cry over injustice and misfortune. There is no shame in that; there is only shame in trying to denigrate that. It is you who would call us ‘bleeding hearts’ that should be ashamed.

“We strenuously disagree that our ideas are brainless, but even if they were, we’d rather be ‘bleeding hearts’ than stone ones.”

A false dichotomy, as we have seen.

But it prompts me to wonder what I mean by heart. Why can I say that I have more heart now than I did when I was going around constantly trying to save the world through various Marxist schemes? Well, it’s because “heart” is more than just sympathy, more than just feeling bad for others.

Heart is what is in the center of us, as beings. Heart is courage and conviction and perseverance. The heart contains the wisdom without which the mind is dry. It’s not a very popular view these days, but I believe you can develop the “vision” and feeling of the heart with practice, and you can use the heart to navigate the world of love and meaning just as you use your mind to follow complex arguments, or you use your body to walk through a labyrinth. (Or it doesn’t have to be mazes… I could also say you can use your heart to cross the sea, or climb the mountains.)

As usual, C. S. Lewis said something eloquent and relevant. From “Men without Chests” in The Abolition of Man:

The Chest — Magnanimity — Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation [of certain kinds of modern thinking] is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her … It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest that makes them seem so.

And all the time … we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.

Astute as always. Except that in the gap from Lewis’ time to our own, we no longer even expect virtue and enterprise. We’ve removed the organ and ceased to even demand the function. People don’t even know what’s missing. Like birds that have never seen the ocean, we think the local pond constitutes the greatest sea conceivable.

The convinced leftist — our “bleeding heart” — bleeds all over, to be sure. He bleeds money on this or that social program; he bleeds words all over the page, decrying this or that injustice done to this or that victim group; his seeping spatter of blood trails down the sidewalk everywhere he goes.

But where is the heart? Where is the cheerful courage? Where is the deep devotion to something larger than yourself? (And no, “Occupy Wall St.” does not count. If you want to understand why, ask whether any of those people would be there if they could achieve the same ends without the cameras and the public acknowledgment of their specialness.)

No, bleeding all over the place doesn’t mean you have a heart. It means you have a torso. Where there should be a dynamo of love and energy, there’s just a seeping meat-cavity.

The good news, as I’ve learned, is that this doesn’t have to be a permanent state of affairs.

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3 comments on “The Bleeding Torso Liberal

  1. Johnny Caustic says:

    I’ve heard this concept several times before, but I have no idea what action to take. But how does one get one’s chest back? Has anything been written about this, ever?

    • outofsleep says:

      Well, one might say that the entire corpus of world spiritual literature is about exactly this topic. But in terms of it being put in this metaphor, I don’t really know. C. S. Lewis is the one who wrote that passage, so his books are a great place to start.

      I’m no expert, because I’m still working on it myself. I guess the first step is to acknowledge it as a goal, and to think about it and wonder about it a lot. Also, I find literature featuring characters with big hearts is inspiring. Except for children’s literature, almost all fiction written in the last 50 years, and almost all movies and television are out, then.

      I like Tolkien of course. Sam, Frodo, and Aragorn (and others) have a lot of heart. I also like Sir Walter Scott for that reason too.

      I also recommend taking some time each day, preferably in the morning, listening to your heart. I know that sounds really cheesy, but that’s exactly what I mean. If you are Christian, try praying. If not, you can still pray. Or you can just do a compassion practice where you envision love pouring out from your heart. If it feels painful at first, that’s a good sign! Sometimes there’s a lot of rotten old wreckage to clear away around the heart.

  2. Johnny Caustic says:

    Thank you.

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