Extreme heart, vulnerable heart

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“I care too much,” Jeff says. “I worry about everyone. My girlfriend. My mom. My little sisters. I have an extreme heart.”

Jeff, 17, is in the juvenile detention center on minor in possession charge.

“Yeah,” Jorge says. “Me, too. I stress out about the people I love.”

Jorge is 16 and belongs to one of the gangs in town.

“I’m the opposite,” says Mario. “I hate people who love me.”

There’s silence in the circle. Mario has a bright blonde streak in his dark hair and a gentle way about him. He speaks in a soft voice and has a slight lisp. He doesn’t seem like a person filled with hate.

“Who do you hate?” Jeff asks.

“Everybody. I hate everybody,” Mario says without a trace of anger or bitterness in his voice.

“Why?” Jeff asks.

Mario shifts in his chair, looks around the circle at the other boys, shrugs. “I had my hopes crushed a lot when I was young. Bad things happened in my childhood. So I only have a few friends. And I hate adults. They’re all phonies. They say they love you and then they do bad things.”

“Yeah, they’re all fakes,” Rickie says. “They say they’re going to help you, they say they care about you, but then they don’t do anything to help you. You just can’t trust them.”

I listen to the boys talk and I think about how fast the group transitioned from love to hate. The two emotions are joined at the hip, of course. Love is stressful, especially if you have “an extreme heart.”

Love hurts, and when it hurts too much — when trust and hope and faith in others are crushed time and time again — hate sometimes finds its way into the heart. Sometimes hate settles in permanently. The heart, I think, is big enough to provide a soft landing place for both love and hate.

My brilliant friend and coauthor Ernie Kurtz explains it this way. He says we’re all born into a kind of paradoxical “4-H Club.” If we get close enough to Hug someone, then we are close enough to Be Hugged by that person, but we are also close enough to Hit or to Be Hit — even if the blow is accidental.

In the same sense, if we let people close enough to Heal us, then they are also close enough for us to Heal them. But in coming that close, we can also Hurt each other.

Hugging and Hitting. Hurting and Healing. You might remember the story about the boy in the plastic bubble. A boy with a rare disease lived his entire life in a sterile plastic bubble because a single germ, one unsterilized touch, could be fatal to him.

People who reached through the hermetically sealed opening in the bubble wore sterilized gloves. Everything that was handed to the boy — water, food, utensils, clothes, books, gifts — had to be decontaminated before passing through the opening.

Sealed off, isolated, in permanent quarantine, the boy was literally “untouchable.” But even the plastic bubble couldn’t save him.

According to one version of the story, when the boy in the bubble knew he was dying, he yearned for one thing above all else — to touch and be touched. Weeks before he died, at age 12, his mother touched his skin for the first and last time.

Touching can heal. But it can also hurt. I thought about that as I listened to Jeff and Mario.

“I care about people too much,” Jeff was saying. “It hurts a lot.”

“Yeah,” Mario said. “It’s hard to love.”

Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and executive director of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.

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