The average “grown-up” is childishly patriotic, along the lines of “my country right or wrong”; infantilely religious, seeing (and seeking) God as a king up in the sky long after monarchies have been swept away as outmoded forms of government. How rare is a clear mind — a mind not locked down around opinions/attitudes/outlooks that most people are early on programmed into and have grown comfortable with.

How rarer still is an open-heart. Well nurtured children have open-hearts by nature, it seems, but as we get older we blunt our innate capacities to empathize, to care, to feel. It probably boils down to a simple formula: if you don’t feel too much, you don’t hurt too much.

Yet, doesn’t any halfway clear mind know that the time is now upon us when clearer minds and more open hearts – starting with ourselves — must begin to manifest in greater numbers, and finally prevail, or this experiment in nature called the human being will be done for. Undeveloped minds and closed hearts have led us to the edge of the precipice.

It’s a daunting, late-in-the-day, against-all-odds challenge. And no one can save us from the everyday work that has to be done. Starting with the part of “us” that is me.

. . .

Recently I stopped in at Joe’s for my monthly haircut in downtown Cumberland. It’s something I look forward to. The barbershop is a male institution that goes back to my youth, when a shop typically had several chairs and was teeming with robust conversation — nothing unseemly, but definitely male.

Joe’s shop is a scaled down throw-back to that earlier time. He has two chairs, but I wouldn’t venture a guess as to when Joe’s second chair was last used for actual barbering. Nonetheless, it has a function, because many of his long-standing customers like to sit in it when they are next in line. Or when they’ve just stopped in to shoot the shit.

On this particular morning, as I am looking around for the morning paper, Joe points me to the presently empty second chair to sit in. It’s a compliment, I realize. I’m not exactly a long time customer, maybe seven or eight years, but our once monthly tete-a-tetes have been slowly adding up to a something like a … well, not a friendship exactly, but for sure more than an acquaintance, even though we’ve not one time crossed paths outside of the barbershop.

It’s amazing, really, how a relationship can happen, one hour a month, if it’s a regular thing. Plus Joe has a gift for getting to know his customers. Barbers often do. He draws me out, and we’ve discovered that we have a similar take on life. Neither of us see the world situation or the local situation as looking very promising. Cumberland itself, once the thriving “Queen City” of Maryland, once its second largest city, has dropped from 50,000 to 20,000 in population, with the major industries having pulled out maybe four decades ago. Kelly-Springfield Tires. Pittsburgh Plate and Glass. Several breweries, bakeries.

What nowadays keeps the town above water economically are a couple of prisons and an upscale gambling joint (the Rocky Gap Casino). As one might surmise, such places bring with them outside influences – sometimes unsavory stuff, especially the prison industry, as a lot of families follow their incarcerated sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers to Cumberland, one,to be closer to them, and, two, where housing is a lot cheaper than down state where most of the prisoners come from.

And now we’re fully entrenched in the opiate crisis, mostly brought in from the outside, the locals believe. As Joe frequently mentions, homelessness is off the charts; the Union Rescue Mission is overflowing.

Joe owns the building he barbers in, and upstairs there’s an efficiency apartment he rents out for extra income. He has a sign in his window right now, and while I’m sitting in his second chair that day, a man stops in to inquire about it. He is reasonably nicely dressed and groomed, about 50 years old. But he’s carrying a back-pack and that’s a tip-off to Joe.

“I think that apartment is already taken,” Joe tells the man.

The man nods, and without showing any sign of disappointment or anger, turns on his heel and walks out. It is his gentlemanly demeanor, or maybe his sensitive face that catches my heart off-guard, and I immediately swell up in empathy for his being summarily dismissed like that. I am surprised by how much I swell up. It’s like for a minute I am this man.

But isn’t that what empathy is? You go momentarily inside the feelings of another person.

As soon as he is out the door, Joe leans over and says to me, “Do you think that apartment is unavailable?”
I say back, “I don’t know….” Then add, “He looked like a good fellow to me.”

Joe, I can tell, thinks I am criticizing him for being insensitive. He says, a little stiffly, “When you’ve been in this business as long as I’ve been, you become a pretty good judge of character.”

I leave it at that. Would I be any different if I was renting out a flat? I’d scrutinize applicants. But I am caught in the thought of how over the years the blacks and the poor, whatever “outsider” comes to mind, must have felt when they heard, once again, “Oh, I think that room’s already taken.” And have I not, on occasion, felt the nasty sting of not being seen.

And am I not, as well, the one who on occasion has delivered the sting, the man who has closed his heart to the man who could use a break, not knowing how much I am also hurting myself in so doing.

. . .

I think I have this experience at Joe’s on this particular morning, because my mind has been frequently speaking to me of late about my own closing heart — how I don’t have the empathy I once had for the life around me that might be hurting. I don’t have a clear explanation for why this is happening to me (to some degree has already happened) when in my value system empathy is way up there. As it should be. The heart is the center of life. “The heart of the matter,” we say. “Sacred Heart,” we name the school or hospital. Never Sacred Head.

One thing I remember from the New Testament is Jesus saying that where ye have done it to the least of these (like visiting someone in prison, or taking in a stranger), you have done it to me. It’s like he’s saying that the best way to get close to God is by seeing God in other people, and not seeing through your head, but through your heart.

My head has been informing me for a while now that I’ve been losing heart ground — and that the whole world is losing heart ground. My mind has been reminding (re-minding) me that this loss is of enormous importance – and not only for the persons for whom we register no compassion.

And there’s one good reason why we need to develop in both mind and heart simultaneously. A clear mind will inform us if our heart is not open. Or if it’s not open as much as we want it to be. Or as we remember it once being. A clear mind will tell us that no matter how much an open heart hurts, it hurts less than a closed heart. And a clear mind will explore the steps we need to take to get ourselves right.

Maybe it’s the rapid speed of modern life that takes a piece of our feeling nature, then another piece, on and on. When you think about it at all, a person has to live pretty slowly to live feelingly. It’s a pace incompatible with a typical modern life. Maybe on some level we like the speed because deadened feelings don’t hurt.

As part of the human race on Planet Earth in the 21st century is the race between consciousness and catastrophe. It goes on in large political/societal ways, but it goes on within the individual, too. That race, it seems to me, is nearing the finish line. One will win. What bigger catastrophe could there be than to die with a heart smaller than the one you were born with.


  1. Charles Sullivan

    Jim, I like the way this piece, like most of your work, connects the micro and the macro—the singular and universal. That is something I try to do in my own writing. The big is seen and revealed in the small details of daily life, if one is conscious enough and moves slowly enough to appreciate them. This suggests there are no trivial moments, if one is truly conscious. Seemingly trivial moments have a cumulative impact.

    There are some good lines in the essay, too: “It probably boils down to a simple formula: if you don’t feel too much, you don’t hurt to much.” A simple but profound truth, affirmed by my own experience and observations of other people. People don’t want to think about the anguish felt by the cow at the industrial factory slaughterhouse, so they block it out, but we both know where repressed memories lead, and that is where we are as a society.

    The slow, measured pace of the writing attracts me. You say: “Undeveloped minds and closed hearts have led us to the edge of the precipice.” We must learn to embrace pain and struggle as manifestations of life. Empathy for life provides opportunity for psychological development and spiritual enlightenment. But to rush by it is to miss the point. Pain avoidance is life avoidance—a form of Novocaine that numbs the soul and clouds the mind. Don’t hide from the cold austerity of winter. Go for a long walk. Let the cold get into you.

    The essay concludes: “What bigger catastrophe could there be than to die with a heart smaller than the one you were born with.” Thoreau said: “I have always regretted that I am not as wise as the day I was born.” Perhaps he meant something like that. Sometimes we lose more than we have gained and we become less than we were, and less than we could be.

    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

      What a terrific short essay in reply, Charley. I like that you mention the cow in the slaughterhouse, because it reminded me my piece was too human-centric. We have the potential to be empathetic to all creatures. Children would be horrified to know what goes on in a slaughterhouse. We wouldn’t allow them near one. But the child within has been largely deadened. I shudder to think of the karma debt we’ve accumulated in this respect alone.

  2. Michael Wilfred

    What impeccable timing you have, almost as if at the very onset of my own experience, to extend a hand and relay that I am not alone. I, too, have begun to notice the bitter numbing of losing heart ground. Perhaps the current cultural climate we’re forced to associate with leaves us predisposed to isolation from empathy, and those who decide to care deliberately experience empathy fatigue. Morose, but I think such exhaustion may be overcome for the sake of consciousness.

    At any rate, thank you for speaking to such a relative, stressful topics. I miss your classes dearly for this type of revelation discussion. I will always be looking forward to your next post!

    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

      Thanks, Michael.

      I miss you as a student, too. Nice to know you’re out there. Let’s keep in touch.


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