When I introduce people for the first time, the highest praise I can give in describing one or both parties is to say that they have a big heart. To have a big heart is to be able to accept others as they are and to treat them with graciousness and respect. To have a big heart means to me that your values and your actions align.
I don’t really care about how much you own, how much money you may have, what position of authority you may or may not have. For me, life is all about how you love and treat others. In my world, saying someone has a big heart means the person has looked deeply into their own soul. They understand their own failings and as a result, have the ability to allow others space to be who they are without judgement. I guess you could say that having a big heart means you make room in your life for others; that you are tolerant, gracious, forgiving, and loving. Perhaps an easier way to describe it is to look at others as if through the eyes of God.
My mom – who was 100 years old – died this week. She was this tiny 5’4” Italian mother and grandmother whose heart was open to anyone who had the good grace to walk through her door. Here’s one example of what I mean. One of my dearest friends decided that he was leaving the Catholic priesthood. Shortly after he made this life-altering decision, he came to visit my mom. I remember vividly sitting in her kitchen, drinking coffee and talking about what was ahead for him. Unexpectedly, my mom got up from the table and started rummaging around her kitchen cupboards, pulling out pots and pans and cooking utensils all of which she handed to my friend to take and keep to help him get on his feet. In my mom’s world, life began and ended at the kitchen table and she just couldn’t envision my friend starting out on a new life with no way to cook and take care of himself or to entertain family and friends. She opened her heart as she opened her cupboards to give him what should could.
My mom set the standard for love and graciousness in our family and is my model of a big-hearted person. When one of my childhood friends heard that mom died, she wrote a condolence note saying: “I will always remember your mom’s kindness and her smile.” That was the effect my mom had on most who got to know her.
I’m not sure I will ever have the boundless capacity for love that my mom displayed. But I know that if it is something I aspire to, I will most assuredly be a better person for the trying. My mom’s physical stature was small, but her heart was big enough to embrace all whom she met.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.