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5 Life Lessons From the Heart

Everything except for life, that is. I wouldn't say it takes a Harvard Medical School education to come to this realization, but I am going to let you in on the secrets hidden in the confines of a $400,000 degree:
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enjoying the life together
enjoying the life together

I am in my room - alone - and everything is quiet. The curtains are closed in that half-open sort of way, and my fingers are gliding across the keyboard in search of the right words to say 'hello' in e-mail form.

Everything, in this moment, is simple.

Everything except for life, that is. I wouldn't say it takes a Harvard Medical School education to come to this realization, but I am going to let you in on the secrets hidden in the confines of a $400,000 degree:

Life is complicated.

In order to sit at my computer, typing out an e-mail, every system in my body has to be integrated in function and form. Things can go wrong, a signal sent a little too soon, a fight-or-flight response initiated without real danger, but then everything else has to go right to compensate for the misfire.

In biology, we call this beautiful complexity 'homeostasis.' It is steady-state. It's the balance of activation and inactivation that makes life function. And, when you get to the science of it all, it's this microscopic integration of infinite processes - homeostasis - that allows for our moments of simple pleasure.

But, I have to admit: I get overwhelmed. My body may be able to handle the complexity of life, the demands of effective communication and constant multitasking, but my mind is another story. I have good days, days when everything runs smoothly and energetically. But, I also have days when I am tired and scattered, confused and lonely. I have moments - lots of them - when I just need to step away from this complicated thing called life and take even a nap-length break.

Our bodies, though, don't get that break. They keep running, always. So it's about time we all looked inward for some inspiration, and I really mean inward, because beneath our skin and sternum and nerves is a heart with a physiology wiser than even that contained within the whole bookstore selection of self-help paperbacks.

So, here you have it, straight from the cadaver lab of Harvard Medical School and onto the webpage of your favorite blog: Five Life Lessons from the Heart.

Lesson 1: The more you put in, the more you'll get out.
In physiology, we call this the Frank-Starling relationship. When you fill your heart with more blood, you are able to stretch your cardiac muscles to ideal length. On the next dub of the heartbeat, you reap the rewards of this effort, filling your vessels with this greater output of nourishment. Simply put, even your heart knows that front-loaded effort can yield life-altering outcomes.

Lesson 2: Things may seem upside-down, but that's OK!
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: the heart isn't shaped like a Valentine's Day card. I know, your mind was just blown. Actually, your heart is shaped like this oddly pointed oval that sits UPSIDE DOWN and lopsided in your chest! And the crazy thing is, it works BETTER that way. It gathers all its strength at its lowest portions - the ventricles - so that it can generate the most effective wave of force to power the rest of your body. So really, everything that may seem odd and distorted about this blob of tissue is what makes it JUST RIGHT.

Lesson 3: Just keep taking one step at a time.
Yes, these lessons may sound clichéd, but how can they be? Our hearts didn't know English when they developed in our tiny bodies. They just knew what worked. They knew that you put one chamber - the atrium - before another - the ventricle. They knew you put one circuit through the lungs before you follow another circuit through the body. And because our heart is patient, taking one step at a time, our body receives blood that is freshly nourished with all the life-sustaining oxygen we need!

Lesson 4: Listen to your heart. It has something valuable to say.
Okay, okay, you may be thinking the formaldehyde of a cadaver lab has gotten to my head. But really, think about it: our hearts talk to us. They tell us what is happening at all times in a clever little language of lubs and dubs. We just have to pick up a stethoscope and listen. Not many of us take the time to stop and listen to our own heartbeats or measure our own pulse, but all of the information, all of the answers, have been inside us all along. Isn't it about time we listen?

And finally . . .

Lesson 5: When up against a road block, you WILL find the strength to move forward.
Our hearts put up with A LOT. They put up with us after all! When your blood pressure rises, when you jump into an anxious state and your vessels constrict in response, when you start forming pesky plaques of fat in your arteries, your heart keeps going. In science, we have this word, afterload, to describe everything your heart has to overcome in order to eject the next stroke of blood. When that afterload gets a little too large for a little too long, your heart adapts. It recruits more muscle fibers, more strength. It thickens its walls and faces that greater obstacle with a greater force.

So yes, life is complex. In fact, scientists can spend entire careers just studying one aspect - a heart, for instance - of this intricate existence. But, one fact of life is simple: your heart never just gives up. It applies order and effort and communication and, more often than not, it makes things work.

So what do you say? Are you ready to look inward for inspiration? Are you ready to listen to your own heart in search of that next moment of simple joy? Because I'm willing to bet, you, too, carry all the answers you will ever need.

The doctor said she would live in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, crippled by pain; that was thirteen years ago. Instead, Mirissa D. Price is a 2019 DMD candidate at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, spreading pain-free smiles, writing through her nights, and, once again, walking through her days.

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