What a Muscle!

by Elder M. Lindahl

Make a fist and look at its size. I’ve read that the size of one’s fist is about the size of one’s heart. As one grows from infancy to adulthood, the fist size is a good indicator of the size of the heart at each stage of one’s physical development. An infant’s heart and fist, for example, are about the same size.

I remember walking one day with my son-in-law, Jeff, up the long, gradual grade of Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. From their place on Willow Grove Avenue to the top of the hill is a mile or more. Jeff is a big man who walks fast and energetically, and I was doing my best to keep up with him. Our good pace made me aware of an increasing heart rate, and I turned to him and said, "Isn’t the human heart wonderful! It beats tirelessly from before birth and on without one’s being aware if it. Just think, how marvelous the heart really is." Without missing a step, Neurosurgeon Jeff responded immediately and cryptically, "It’s just a muscle!"

Put down, I retorted, "But Jeff, aren’t you as a medical person impressed with the steady, rhythmic beat of the heart and its absolute importance to your continuing life in this world?" "Just a muscle," came his quick, professional reply.

My cardiac reflections were going nowhere, and the topic changed as we continued our pleasant walk by the delightful stores of Germantown Avenue. Obviously, there was a difference of perspectives for someone in his 70s and someone in his 30s, for someone trained in the humanities and for someone trained as a neurosurgeon. I continued in my belief that whatever our age or vocation the regular beat of the heart is essential and remarkable, worthy of some grateful reflection on how marvelously human beings are put together.

It’s quite recent that we have come to understand much about the heart and how to correct damaged or failing hearts. Ancient and Middle Ages people knew that the heart was central to life, using terms like "the heart of the matter," or "I give you my heart," but they had little understanding of the structure and function of this pear-shaped organ. William Harvey (1578-1657) is credited with first describing the circulation of the blood in 1628. About a century later, in 1733, British Pastor Stephen Hales first measured blood pressure. In 1938, an American Surgeon, Robert E. Gross, did the first heart surgery. In 1967, Christian Barnard, a South African surgeon, performed the first heart transplant, and 15 years later, an American Surgeon, Willem DeVries, implanted the Jarvik artificial heart into a patient. New technical cardiac advances are announced every day. A recent National Institute of Health (NIH) news release reported that heart muscle cells regenerate after a heart attack.

Take a minute right now as you read, and check your pulse. Wrap one hand around your other wrist and count the beats for a little while. Feel and think about that amazing non-stop muscle, or some make-shift electronic device, that beats faithfully 50-to-80 times a minute within your chest. Whether you still have your original heart or someone else’s beating in your chest is beside the point.

There are many ways humans measure time, from wristwatches to Big Bens to computer chips, but your heart beat is a very different kind of measurement. That familiar artery pulse you feel is the most important natural indicator you have of your own personal time. It’s an intimate reminder of your temporal existence, of the inner passing of living time. Dividing time into units like seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years, important as it is for schedules and appointments, is quite artificial. The constant inward pulsating beat is your very own time. Experiencing these finite pulsations is to stand in the presence of Eternity. It’s simple duration that represents all the time available for you.

The heart is often used as the seat of the emotions of courage and love, as in: "Take heart!" "I you!" The Tin Woodsman in the Wizard of Oz, on a search for his heart on their way to the Emerald City, sings:

When a man’s an empty kettle

he should be on his mettle,

And yet I’m torn apart.

Just because I’m presumin’

that I could be kinda human,

If I only had a heart.

I’d be tender I’d be gentle

and awful sentimental

Regarding Love and Art.

I’d be friends with the sparrows...

and the boy who shoots the arrows

If I only had a heart.

Picture me, a balcony.

Above a voice sings low,

Wherefore art thou, Romeo?

I hear a beat...How Sweet.

Just to register emotion,

jealousy-devotion,

And really feel the part.

I could stay young and

chipper and I’d lock it with a zipper,

If I only had a heart.

I agree, Jeff, its a muscle, but not just a muscle. That constant inner beat signals life itself along with all the earthly enrichments. What an amazing muscle—actually and symbolically!

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl