There is something quite striking about the taste we receive when we take a bite of an appetizing-looking salad, finding that the flavor is not crisp or refreshing, but rather foreign, harsh, and unwelcoming to the taste buds. When we eat certain greens or vegetables, like kale, cabbage, turn-ups or beats we characterize them as bitter tasting. What do we do when we encounter this bitter taste? Well, most of us would either spit it out of our mouth, rejecting the flavor, or if we are daring, continue to chew the bitter greens or vegetables, enduring the taste while trying to make the best of the encounter. For the latter, even though the taste may be bitter, we assume it must be good for us.
Many times in our encounters with others we experience this taste of bitterness. These ‘others’ are usually the ones we are closest to and ones that we love dearly, such as a friend or a family member. We taste the bitterness of the other such as when we do not feel loved by a friend or when we experience the envy of our sibling, when it seems his parent loves another sibling more. These examples of bitterness leave us in an uncomfortable state. It becomes difficult to be in the presence of such a friend. We feel as if their heart is closed to us. Yet so often we are unaware of what causes the bitterness.
In his book The Heart, von Hildebrand categorizes the ‘embittered’ other as a “heartless or hardhearted man who is incapable of really loving.” (1) It is common for us as an initial reaction to describe our friend or relative as a person who has no heart or who is heartless when he acts in this way. How is this bitterness manifest in our actions? First, it can be through the expression of the other by a piercing glance or gesture. Another way is through silence or refusal of the other to speak to us. Lastly, the other may make hurtful comments toward us.
As estranged and as inexcusable as the other’s action might be toward us, we must come to an understanding of why this other’s heart “has been closed and silenced” causing the other to be filled with such bitterness. (2) When von Hildebrand refers to the “heartlessness” of the embittered man, he wants us to understand that the “center in a man’s soul” is experiencing a “crippling” effect. (3) The heartless man is crippled in that there is an absence of love in his soul. Von Hildebrand says the embittered heart is “found in one who has been betrayed by the person whom he has ardently loved” which can be caused “by some great disappointment” such as that of a “wound inflicted on his heart” by another. (4) Further, we must distinguish from other types of heartlessness and say that this other “had a heart, but the trauma he experienced has embittered and hardened his heart.” (5) From this we can be confident that the other has the capacity to ‘unharden’ his heart again. For we ought not merely feel sorry for the heartless man; we are called to love him out of his bitterness.
We may now ask: how do we respond to the embittered other?
We are capable of two things in response to the embittered other. Our first response can be like that of our first reaction to the bitter greens or vegetables, which is to spit it out, to reject it, and to discount that it is good at all. A response like that to the embittered other means to reject him and in certain circumstances, be just as bitter toward him. We forget that every human person is inherently good-they were made for love. They can and will love again.
The second response we are capable of is the more difficult response. It requires endurance, perseverance, and hope in the end result. In choosing not to spit out the bitter greens or vegetables, we instead embrace the bitter taste, desiring the objective good of health. We know the nutrients are good for our body. Our taste buds might not like the beginning of this process, but over time we develop a taste for what is good for us. The same idea should be taken in our response to the embittered other. There needs to be a digestion of the bitterness. We need to break through the harsh taste of the other’s bitter encounter towards us and meet the other at his core, which is the heart. This process is not easy. There is pain in our self-surrender, approaching the other and asking him what is wrong. We must humbly deny ourselves, forgiving the other for how they have hurt us. This surrender accents the virtue of humility and humility is a denial of oneself. We have to think of the other and forgive the hurt that has been shown to us first.
Therefore, although the heart has been hardened by the “scars of the wound,” we must acknowledge that we can still “pierce through the walls erected around this heart.” (6)
All the hardened heart needs is love.
Let us remember, the next time we are faced with an embittered heart-let us encounter it with love.
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart (Indiana St. Augustine’s Press, 2000) 59.
2. Ibid., 62: “has been closed and silenced...”
3. Ibid., 59: “center in a man’s soul…crippling...”
4. Ibid., 62: “found in one who has been betrayed by the person whom he has ardently loved...by some great disappointment...wound inflicted on his heart...” Cf. Chapter six in The Heart
5. Ibid., 62: “had a heart, but the trauma he experienced has embittered and hardened his heart.”
6. Ibid., 63: “...scars of the wound…pierce through the walls erected around this heart.”