When Benjamin checked into the hospital, he didn’t know whether he came to die or get a new heart, and he didn’t care one way or another which it was to be. At sixty, he was played out, and his heart was, as Tony might say, “dead meat.” When I became his nurse, it had been only a few days since he’d received the heart of a man half his age. He couldn’t keep from resting his hands across his sternal incision, astonished to feel another man’s heart beating in his chest.
Benjamin was astonished also for an even more profound reason. He was feeling compassion for the first time. “I was never a man who was given to weeping,” he told me, “but now it’s all I do.” I was moved to watch him minister to his roommate, a young man who was himself on the short list for a new heart.
Mostly Benjamin was weeping because he’d spent forty years in the CIA, cold and efficient, “on company business” in Laos, El Salvador, the Congo; supervising torture in Latin America, clandestine operations in Africa and Asia. “If only Americans knew,” he kept saying. I suppose for the two days I was with him, I represented the America “that needed to know.” He poured his heart out.
All this was far less melodramatic than it sounds, maybe because he had utterly come to the end of his rope. His grief was soft, reflective, and he was continually surprised that he could feel anything at all. His new humility was genuine, and every night his prayers were quiet as he began his new life.
It is a beautiful thing, the prayer that comes naturally when cruelty is acknowledged and razed to the ground. “I thank God for removing that hard heart of mine,” said Benjamin.
The twelve steps are a schooling in the nature of humility from the moment we say “yes, I am incapable of altering those patterns that cause such violence” through uncompromising self-scrutiny to this raising of the hands in supplication.
Step Seven prays from the knowledge that for all our self-examination, we will never fully see ourselves though we are fully seen. We will see more clearly after our hearts are changed, but to be human is to be born with a measure of blindness. Like Benjamin, we do not genuinely know what impedes our relationship with God and the world. We must concede the ragged heart to a wisdom quite beyond what we will ever understand.
Benjamin’s story belongs to all of us who live on the fruit of our countries’ violence. Our hearts have been likewise hardened by what has been routinely done in our name. Can we locate the cancer of cruelty in our lived lives? Or does it take the guise of indifference? Or do we just rely on people like Benjamin to enact the cruelty that sustains an unmanageable culture of addiction? You may discern a vague answer to these questions, the outline of a hardened heart that is the only heart we know, but no matter. Offer it up, as did Benjamin: I am here. Heal me. For the sake of the world.
It is here we succumb to the generosity of Spirit.
MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is the coauthor (with Augustine Kandemwa) of Gathering in the Names ( Spring Audio and Journal 2003) and Dreaming the End of the World. The full text of this essay is posted at www.gatheringin.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org