In the airport on my way to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that first time when I was twenty-one years old, high on idealism and adventure, looking ahead to eleven months living on just room and board and sixty dollars per month in a house with intermittent running water and bucket-flush toilets, the man sitting next to me in the airport lobby asked me where I was going and all of this came pouring out of me in a gush of words.

“That is some real bleeding-heart shit!” he said, laughing, not unkindly.

I felt transparent, embarrassed. After four years of learning about and talking about injustice, I was still teaching my heart to bleed. Compassion was not my first reflex, and I used to wonder if this meant there was something broken inside of me—that I had to wake up every morning and put on my best estimation of goodness, actively remember who I wanted to be in this terrible world.

Until then, service had been more of an intellectual exercise. I wrote double-spaced papers about the global economy in twelve-point font. I talked to friends after midnight about the world and our place in it. I was like the children in The Music Man learning to play music with my mind. If you’ve seen the musical, you know this ends badly. The hours of practicing with the “think system” don’t transfer to mastery of the physical instrument’s mouthpiece, keys, and valves.

A young man who had done the same program in Honduras a few years before me saw the poverty around him and gave away everything he had—the program leaders had to step in to make him keep his shoes and the shirt on his back. Other volunteers settled so deeply into their community that it became their own. All of us taught classes, heard stories, raised money, raised awareness, but I always felt a sort of imposter syndrome, like others were doing these things more naturally, or with purer motivations than my own.

If you were set on a path toward what is good and right and true, would you ever wake up some Saturday seven years later wondering what you had done for the world lately? Sometimes I read the news or a plaque at a museum and it hits me with the same queasy feeling as realizing I left my purse back at the restaurant, as disorienting as the dream where I’m late for a final exam in a course I forgot I was even in. There is work to be done and I haven’t been doing enough.

Oh, but the heart is a muscle.

When I push my muscles, they grow tired and sore. It’s not usually pleasant. I exercise, though, because I want to be stronger, to lift heavy things and walk long distances. I exercise not because I want to in that moment but because at the end of the day and at the end of my life, I will have been glad that I did it.

I wish someone had given me permission years ago to feel the same way about compassion.

It wasn’t a bleeding heart that sent me overseas for those years. My heart doesn’t push me to volunteer on the weekends or sign up for extra responsibilities at church. But putting myself in those places stretches my heart and makes it stronger. It makes me more likely to see others’ need, and, when I see it, to respond from a habit of generosity.

And “it gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier,” to quote BoJack Horseman. “But you gotta do it every day; that’s the hard part.”

I give myself more grace now to act first and let the mind and heart follow. My heart may bleed or be broken by the work—or it may not. It might just nudge me with the news or a plaque at a museum and a queasy feeling to turn back to who it is I want to be as long as I’m “alive,” like Mary Oliver, “on this fresh morning / in this broken world.”


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons user OpenStax College (CC BY 3.0)


  1. Anna

    If you aren’t familiar with them, you might like the band Gang of Youths… they do, in fact, have a song with this exact title!

  2. Katie Van Zanen

    I think pretty often, Kate, of that piece you wrote early in your time in Honduras parodying the “I am living abroad more authentically than you” conversation, and really getting at the desperation behind it to justify oneself and feel okay– in this case, in the face of inequality it’s impossible to rationalize. And contending with the fact that the cause and effect of our lives is murkier than we can bear.

    Realizing that you’ve left your purse at the restaurant– what an image, for this feeling.


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