The Heart Knows Its Own Bitterness
“They don’t understand me.” “No one can have any idea of what I am going through.”
This is what people say in (pastoral) conversations. It is expressed by many people. In taking part in such conversation you are inclined to minimize such sayings and rationalize them, put them in perspective. Is it really true what you are saying?
There is indeed a lonely heart. The heart that knows its own bitterness.
That is what I will make some remarks about also for the benefit of the pastoral carer.
Well-versed Bible readers will recognize in the title of this article the text of Proverbs 14:10. The English Standard Version Bible reads, “The heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger shares its joy.” It’s stated here that something lives in the heart of man that is not accessible for anyone else. It is necessary to track down this issue and give it a place in dealing with our fellow men. The secrets of the heart need to be respected. It may not be belittled or pushed aside. This does not mean that we have to accept all the expressed feelings of others. The experience of the basic emotions of life is more or less the same for everyone. If that were not so we would not be able to share our experiences or feelings. A good conversation would be an impossibility. Thankfully that is not the case. The secret of a good conversation is the fact that we can truly share our innermost, heartfelt thoughts. That is nevertheless a vulnerable event. It is not possible to organize a good conversation. It must be given to the people who meet. For the gift of a good conversation we may and must pray in advance.
We try to open up disappointed people so that others can understand them. It is not true that no one can possibly comprehend our special, usually difficult, circumstances. For if that is the case, all assistance can pack up. What’s the use of the pastoral visit and conversation then? After all, we share so much in common in life. That is true of the good things; it also applies to sad, tense, worrisome events. God has given us the ability to empathize with each other’s situations. To be compassionate with each other. That is the power of love. Whether we make enough use of it is another question. Whether we are patient enough to listen is questionable. We have become “short-term” people; people with a certain volatility. We don’t readily open our heart for others and it frightens us if someone should open their heart for us. What will we hear then? How will I deal with that? Can I handle that?
A Limit to Understanding
There is a limit to understanding each other. We must honestly admit that. It is even true in the most intimate relations: even in these relations mutual understanding is limited, notwithstanding the rich moments where two hearts become one in love. But those rich moments have to be earned time and again! That takes time and attention. That takes conversation. There is the blessing, the beneficial outcome of a good conversation, of two hearts opening to each other. That is impossible without the tenderness and purity of true love.
The misunderstood heart does indeed exist. The lonely heart. I am not saying this out of pity or to encourage people to speak about not being understood. The Bible says so itself! The heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger shares its joy. We have to discover the truth of these words. They can help us in our Christian interaction with each other, to accept each other’s unique identity. That will prevent us from measuring another person and his or her feelings by our own feelings. That we judge others’ experience of what they go through from the perspective of how we respond to life ourselves.
We feel the tension between the sense of reality that is expressed by the quoted text from Proverbs and the need that everyone feels deep inside himself. The reality is this: in the deepest sense a person is alone with his or her feelings. Not all feelings can be shared. Every heart knows its own depth, its own secrets. We must respect and accept in love the secret of every heart. Love requires that we treat this with wisdom and prudence.
But at the same time the heart has a need for contact, to be understood and acknowledged; yes, the need to be known in love.
This tension can never be solved entirely, not even with the best methods. There is no psychology able to solve this tension. It boils down to this, that we must mature to a loving, respectful attitude towards each other; to feel through love what really matters and to increase in sensitivity and discernment. In love you can respect each other’s heartfelt secrets. Then you do not want to force the other person, to overwhelm them, to assault them mentally as it were.
Especially the younger are quick to judge. It is good to remember, also in your youth, that your hasty judgment might be totally wrong. If I do not understand something or just don’t get it, that doesn’t mean it does not exist.
In our dealing with people, especially when dealing with deeply emotional matters, the impossibility of fully participating in the innermost experiences of our fellowman is a given. For that very reason, we should respect each other in the deepest experience of faith. We have to allow room for each other’s inmost experiences. We can talk about it and support each other. But I can never demand that the other person should undergo and experience things exactly as I do. The Holy Spirit works the same faith in hearts, but the experience of faith remains bound to our own heart, our own person with the life experiences we have processed.
Practical Elaboration to Two Sides
The heart knows its own bitterness. And even in its joy no stranger can share. The validity of these words works beautifully in two directions. On the one hand they keep us from having unrealistic expectations regarding the understanding, compassion, and solidarity of our fellow men. There is understanding, there is compassion, there is solidarity. And those who experience them will feel strengthened and blessed. And it encourages us to show our own understanding and to try to give solidarity and compassion to others in our community who need this. But let us realize in soberness how vulnerable and tender such feelings of relationship and connecting are. No one in this life escapes moments of complete loneliness, in which you are completely thrown back on yourself. That even happens in otherwise good marriages. Youths also know these forms of loneliness. They touch on what we call the existential loneliness. But such moments when you experience a form of existential loneliness don’t have to be the worst times. You can also in this situation be strengthened inwardly. You become more resilient in your vulnerability towards life. You can grow inwardly.
The other side is that we must be careful not to be too intrusive in the way we share the sorrow or joy of our neighbour. There are indeed such pushy people. And usually they mean well, but they are irritating. No one wants to be the object of intrusiveness and certainly not in cases where the deep feelings of the heart that are directly related to our unique personal being are concerned. A well-known example is that of the overzealous Boy Scout who takes the elderly woman by the arm and brings her to the opposite side of the busy road. On arriving on the other side the lady says, “But I did not want to be on this side.”
We may have our own bitterness. But we may not nurse that bitterness. Don’t pretend as if I am the only one grieving. For that is just not true!
We may be joyful. But not in a selfish way. Joy doubles when we make an effort to tactfully make others share our joy. We can make each other happy. Let us make a serious effort to do that. With respect to Proverbs 14:10, true communion is possible. We have to show openness for this. We will never fully understand each other’s heart, but that is not necessary either. We can be willing in a caring way to open our hearts for each other. Then we will support each other.
God knows and searches our heart. Our heart, with its deepest emotions – be it grief, be it joy – is safe with the Good Shepherd.
This article was translated by Irene Hoeksema