Heart and Character Strengths: When Love Is The Way

By Jennifer Cory
woman sitting at the edge of a dock on a lake

A Story of Me at My Best

A few years ago as part of a graduate school assignment I was asked to write an essay that exemplified me at my best. I was flooded by a memory I had not thought of for decades— of a time when I was 12 years old, sitting on a balcony nine-stories above the beach in south Florida, while on vacation with my family. It was a moonless night and I was staring out in the direction of the ocean, which I could hear but could not see. The peaceful lull of the waves was broken by a strange sound in the distance. When the noise pierced the dark a second time I thought I heard a muffled cry. I leaned forward in my chair and listened more intently. A moment later, there it was again. This time I stood up, leaning against the railing to try and get a better sense of what I was hearing. I looked down at the beach below now blackened by the darkness. The sound pierced the night once more. My eyes narrowed as I tried to find the source of the noise. Suddenly, perhaps due to a shift in the wind or divine intervention, the sound became crystal clear. It wasn’t coming from the beach below but from the the water ahead. It was a cry for help.

My whole body went into high alert. Without a second thought I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled at the top of my lungs in the direction of the water, “I can hear you!” Immediately, the response became louder and more insistent and was joined by a second, equally intense cry. Together they formed a chorus: “HELP! HELP US!, PLEASE HELP!” I screamed back, “I can hear you! Hold on!” I flung the balcony door open into the small living area of the hotel room, startling my family who were watching T.V. “Someone’s drowning! Call for help!” I demanded. Without waiting for a response I turned back to the balcony and climbed on the bottom ledge of the railing leaning from the waist up as far our as I could, knees gripping the metal bars, hands cupped around my mouth. I called out into the night once more, this time even more loudly: “Hold on! Help is on the way!”

My mother came rushing to the balcony and tried to pull me from the railing. Her English heritage made causing such a commotion an unthinkable offense. I shrugged off her grip and continued yelling. Finally, my mother heard the calls too. She spun around and shouted for my siblings to call the front desk. We would later learn that two young lovers had “borrowed” a rowboat off of the beach for a romantic, late night cruise, and got caught in a current that they were neither experienced nor strong enough to fight. They were brought back to shore by rescuers in a motorized boat.

As I lay in my bed that night recounting the events that had taken place, I was surprised by my own actions (yelling into the dark; demanding that others act; refusing to be silenced). I wondered where this sudden boldness came from. Like my mother, my natural disposition has always been to eschew attention, and at the age of 12 I would rather have died then to have brought so much of it upon myself. What if I had been wrong, I thought (self-doubt was my constant companion at that age). But standing on that balcony that night, not a shred of doubt entered my mind. It was clear that something greater than fear and inhibition was driving me, I just didn’t know what that greater force was.

The VIA Survey

I first took the VIA Survey in 2013. To my surprise love came out as my #1 strength. Love? Really? I was kind of pissed. I wanted it to be zest or courage or leadership. You know, one of the cool ones. But love? What a ‘soft skill,’ I thought. I didn’t mention it to anyone and stuck the results in a drawer. Two years later I took it again, this time as a prerequisite for graduate school. Again, love came out as my #1. “OMG, really?!” I sighed. Later that year when I was asked to do the me at my best assignment, and to frame the event through the lens of character strengths, it suddenly dawned on me that the force greater than fear that was driving me that night was love.

I have always had a strong sense of caring about others, family, friends, and strangers alike. As a child I was often teased for being too sensitive— as I was easily moved to tears and an overwhelming desire to help when I saw or heard stories of suffering. It didn’t matter if I knew the person/animal or not. I would feel compelled to do something and cry out of sadness and frustration when I could not. This is an oddity in a world where people watch the news as entertainment during dinner, and then can go on to dessert as if nothing terrible has happened.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the Buddhist teaching on metta that I began to understand the concept of an expansive empathy toward all beings. Metta is a disposition of loving-kindness and deep compassion. It is an unbiased love and likely the driving force behind much of what I feel and have done personally and professionally throughout most of my life, including my choice of career as a clinical psychotherapist and educator.

The HEART Initiative

At the age of 44 I survived a near death experience. One minute I was in the middle of a long distance run on a beautiful day, the next I was on the ground, breathing in shallow sips, my heart pounding wildly. Fellow runners stopped to help, offering the last remnants of their water to combat what everyone suspected was dehydration. But as seconds turned to minutes and then to a quarter of an hour, and my condition didn’t improve, an ambulance was called. By the time I arrived in the ER I had no detectable blood pressure and only a thready pulse remained. A code-blue was called. My heart rate was recorded as a quiver at more than 300 beats per minute. I was shocked with an external defibrillator and spent the next week being transported between three hospitals as doctors tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

Six days after my collapse I was diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a chronic and progressive cardiac disease and a leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young adults. ARVC is particularly lethal for athletes, and in this group is often diagnosed in autopsy. I was lucky to be alive. I received an implanted cardioverter defibrillator, a small device that could shock my heart out of future, life threatening rhythms, and was sent home to go live my life.

ARVC is also an inherited disease and so my parents, siblings and children had to be tested too. My mother and teenage sons were discovered to be carriers of the same genetic anomaly that caused my near fatal event. My sons would have to be monitored for the remainder of their lives, and would need to give up all sports in the hopes of delaying the onset of this disease— a small price to pay to extend your life, unless of course you are 16 and sports are your life. Ten months after my collapse my mother died from complications of ARVC. Life as we knew it would never be the same again.

Love Multiplied

Adjusting to life with a chronic disease, especially one that brings with it significant lifestyle changes and carries ongoing health threats, is hard work, even if you are a psychotherapist who knows a lot about navigating life’s many curve balls. For me the hardest part, aside from my own near death experience and the deep anguish over losing my mother, was worrying about how my sons would live with the threat of this disease. I would have given anything for that not to be the case but these were the cards we were dealt. And while I found myself deep in an emotional hole during the first few months following my diagnosis and the loss of my mother, I was determined to climb out of that hole and become an example to my children of what it looks like to live a good life in the face of a chronic illness. I wanted them to see strength and hope, courage and happiness. I wanted them to see someone who was not only surviving but also thriving, and thereby free to live as full a life as possible within the context of the circumstances. Love once more was the fuel, this time propelling me to move through sadness, fear, and uncertainty, to the meaningful life I hoped could be created on the other side.

As I was navigating through the early stages (which included a less than smooth transition onto heart medication and being shocked by my defibrillator), I began to think about other people living with chronic and degenerative diseases, and wondered how they were managing. I started to reach out— first to those with inherited cardiac disease and then other types of chronic illnesses (seizure disorders, diabetes, autoimmune diseases). What I found were a lot of people living with uncertainty, fear, and a compromised quality of life. It broke my heart to find so many people struggling and without access to strategies and resources that might help relieve their suffering and liberate them once more. What a contradiction to be fortunate enough to survive with a condition that would likely have ended your life prematurely at another time in history, only to have your quality of life so negatively impacted and unattended to. This to me was the great paradox in medicine— successfully extending life but at the expense of a good quality of life.

I knew that if surviving wasn’t enough for me— that it must be true for others as well. As I spoke with people dealing with chronic diseases predictably they, too, wanted not only to survive but to thrive. My desire to help myself and my own children merged with my desire to help all those living with chronic disease, and the HEART Initiative was born.

In the HEART Initiative the elements of Hope, Engagement, Action and Resources are combined to create opportunities for Thriving. We draw on the best available research from the fields of epigenetics, humanistic psychology, cognitive-behavior theory, applied positive psychology, resilience theory, mindfulness meditation, and philosophy, (to name a few). Our mission is to bring together evidence based resources and practices in the area of optimal human functioning, and to turn that information into hope in action for the more than 2 billion people around the world living with chronic disease. By merging theory and practice with the real life needs of those living with chronic disease, a path to improved wellbeing is paved.

Hope in Action

My mother once gave me a Far Side comic that she had cut out of the newspaper. In it were a flock of sheep grazing in a field, with one sheep standing above the others crying “Wait! Wait! … We don’t have to be just sheep!” She colored the standing sheep with yellow highlighter and wrote my name in the space above with an arrow pointing down.

Today when I reflect upon every act of boldness or bravery that I have ever engaged in I can clearly see the roots in metta. Now, instead of being embarrassed by my ‘sensitivity’ to suffering, I am proud of how I have channeled my love into helping others.

Last week in preparation for the Character Strengths Master Class with VIA director, Ryan Niemiec, I repeated the VIA one more time. Want to guess my #1 character strength?

Photo #1 by Pixabay on Pexels

Photo #2 (Heart) by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Photo #3 (mother and photo of Gary Larson, Far Side comic), requested permission for sharing.