In a 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked his congregation, “what is in your heart today?” He explained first “I am like all of you; I am a sinner. But I want to be a good man. So I ask myself, ‘what is in your heart today; what is in your heart?'” On Dr. King’s birthday I asked my kids the same question at dinner. Wilder, 4, quickly responded; “Wuv. And care. Mother Earth.” Tennyson said, “equality.” Although I recognized these noble answers from conversations they have been having at their schools, I wanted to know their own thoughts. I told them the question itself asks for honesty and self-reflection; “everyone has a different answer to this question. What is so important to you that you can feel it in your heart this very minute?” Tennyson found, “my family is in my heart.” “Being fair” was Wilder’s new answer. I loved watching their miniature processes of looking inward and hearing something; anything! Call it an inner voice, or intuition, Self or Ego, they listened to their hearts and no matter their answers today, honing that skill will add so much to their lives. I would have been happy to hear “pancakes” or “trains.”
At my oldest son’s prenatal ultrasound around 18 weeks gestation I found it spectacular to see him inside and out; the full reveal was awe-inspiring. I remember thinking at his last ultrasound at 36 weeks gestation that I was seeing more of his heart that day than I was likely to ever again; more of his brain, his femurs, his metatarsals. But as he’s grown and stamped out a place for himself on this earth, the core of his being is revealed to me in little ways I never anticipated. All of my sons, perhaps all of our collective young sons, are still so honest; so pure in thought in their appropriately youthful, boastful and egotistical ways. My boys are perfectly happy on most occasions to fully reveal themselves (and I do mean that in every sense of the phrase). I assume it won’t always be this easy. I wonder if I will know when our final ultrasound-like moment is happening again; when he is perfectly exposed to me for the last time before entering a new, more private stage in his life? Or will a teenager suddenly walk in that resembles my oldest son except for a sulky pallor on his lovely flawless face and a draped veil over his previously exposed heart? I think its smart to assume that this is it; this is my time with him with his heart exposed before me with high enough frequency for us to explore together its inner workings and rhythms in absolute comfort. This is my time with him to lay the groundwork for trust, safety, openness and honesty in our future, and their future relationships.
This is not where I had planned to go with our Dr. King conversation today. I thought we were going to talk about the man, the hero, the icon of a leap forward in our national character. But I got stuck on two things. One, society or school or my husband and I have clearly already communicated to our kids there are RIGHT answers to some questions. They changed their answers when I reminded them I really wanted to know what was in their hearts. Two, in asking his question, I realized Dr. King understood–preached–rather, that in order for us to advance, we had to be honest about what was in our hearts. Even if we looked inside and found a sinner, or found answers unfit for our mothers’ ears, the truth is the best place, perhaps the only place, to start to develop one’s character. Case in point, when we legislated the end of slavery, racism continued. When we look into our hearts and reveal ourselves, real change starts.
And the kitchen table is where it can start. It’s where honesty is honored and hearts are revealed and values are learned. We teach kids values through how we act and what we choose. And sometimes, like us, they have thoughts no one likes to hear. But we need to talk about the incongruencies in life, the mistakes we make, the thoughts we produce and the feelings we grapple. If there is one thing I would like to succeed at as a parent, friend, aunt, sister, daughter, neighbor and professional…I would like to make a safe place at my table. That’s why Dr. King reminded his congregation that he was a sinner. He took the shame out of thinking and feeling and being real. He said, tell me, and I will not judge you. Look in, see yourself and be free to be who you WANT to be. Say “pancakes!” Say “trains!” Say “sadness.” Say “fear.” Say “anger.” Say “love.” And my this table, we will talk about feelings. At this table, we will gather courage. In these arms, we will face fear. In our home, we will listen to each other.
Two little blonds just wandered in as I was writing. I asked them again, “What is in your heart today?” The little one said “the Titanic.” The big one said “whipped cream.” “Wilder,” I investigated, “aren’t you awfully little to have that big ship in your heart?” He said, “I was just thinking about all the poor people that died. Ten million died and only three of them are still alive.” “Wow, buddy, that is really sad. Do you have room for all of that sadness in your heart?” “Nope,” Wilder said, “that’s why I am sharing it with you.”
I couldn’t say it better. It only takes hearing a baby’s borning cry to know they arrive with full grown feelings in their tiny bodies. So here stands Wilder, 4 years, 3 feet, 40 pounds, trying to carry the Titanic in his heart, alone. It’s not possible; this ship will sink. He needs to share his burden. For that matter, Tenny seemed pretty delighted to share thoughts on the wonder that is whipped cream. We are practicing for when his answer is harder to express and takes more discussion, like “bully” or “date” or “failure.” In my own way, I hope I am doing my part to shape America’s character. I am doing it by asking my three boys and anyone who else who will come to my table, “what is in your heart today?”