HomeEnvironmentThe heart can do amazing things

MICHAEL H. RICHARDSON explores the idea of caring—both caring “about” and caring “for” people and things. He challenges us to look to the heart for the solutions to both our own personal issues and also the big questions facing humanity today.

The word “care” is fascinatingly faceted. We can care about someone or something, and we can care for others and ourselves. One involves an internal world related to feeling, while the other is external and happens according to how we act. The internal system of care seems to be about letting something in us resonate freely. It’s a vulnerability. We might feel compelled to care about others because we intuit a vulnerability in them. But the outward act of caring-for requires work and, at times, risk. The body is a bridge between these two aspects of caring. This human caring body is like a key piece of infrastructure in our society that is under strain and needs repair.

For a few years, in the early 2000s, I embarked on an effort to address climate change where I lived in Idaho. I started a small organization to educate the public about carbon, fire, electric vehicles, and such, and to pass legislation for incremental progress. We had wins, and a bit of progress was made, but certain assumptions I had made became like a shoal on which the project foundered, so I had to rethink the entire situation. I had assumed that people would or could care.

We held an event at which five local scientists, all familiar with climate issues, addressed an audience of business leaders and legislators. Each of the experts (two fire scientists, two hydrologists, and a river and fish expert) had conveyed grave concerns to me about the future when we met privately, and cared deeply about the planet. The idea was that these scientists might have an impact on local policies and approaches, so I asked them to each prepare a 10-minute talk for lay people, to convey the urgency they had shared with me. The audience was made up of fifty policy makers, clergy, business leaders, and other thought leaders in Idaho. It wasn’t open to the public, and there were no media personnel present, so everyone could speak with complete candor.

As the talks unfolded, I was flabbergasted. Four of the five presenters said little about climate change, and failed to share their concerns. One of them mainly promoted his laboratory. Amazingly, in a setting where their opinions might make a difference, they lost their sense of imperative. Just one of the five voiced her honest opinion about snowfall in the mountains, hence the viability of our ski industry, with some emotion in her voice. I felt like a cartoon animal who had stepped off a cliff edge, hovering in mid-air. These folks cared about the climate, but when it came to “caring for” in this setting, they confronted a block in themselves.




In private, we can easily share the way we care “about,” but in public (and in Idaho if you’re a scientist discussing climate change), which is where we often care “for,” there is an entirely different dynamic. Caring “for” in the open depends on a kind of integration of inner and outer worlds and a freedom from fear. After this event, it struck me that problems like climate change need to be addressed at an entirely different level than we might presume.

It can seem that the massive problems we face—climate, racism, human rights, disease, economic equality, etc.—are chiefly technical, political, and ecological. Apparently, if we can install enough solar and wind, get enough people vaccinated, restore enough rainforest, or educate people, it will solve things. If we can put the right people in office, it will lead to progress in other respects. Technologies and policies based on science feel approachable and rational.

But material forms of progress are deceptive. While non-polluting technologies are critical, good policies are essential, and having thoughtful people in office is awesome, human problems have never persisted for lack of knowledge or technology. For decades we have known that gasses like CO2 and methane would damage the planet, but certain forces in society have scuttled collective action. For decades, we have had the resources and ability to feed every human, and to provide every child on the planet with a decent education. Yet, today we have over a billion children living in dire poverty.

What we’re facing is not a technical crisis. To the degree that we have seen progress, it is because people have found a way to care. It has always been the openness of the human heart that limited and defined how policies and technologies were adopted. 
When it comes to the survival of our species, I’ve come to believe that our most critical long-term project and strategy must be the opening and healing of the human heart.

What we call the “heart” can’t be addressed with policies and technologies. The heart is strengthened and clarified in relationships, and our relationship with nature—with other living things in ways that are nearly impossible to express. 

And there is another component to the heart that is less obvious: solitude and quiet. Wherever you go in our society today, there is music playing. As if no one can stand to be alone. Fewer and fewer places exist in darkness. We offer children no rite-of-passage involving solitude, as a chance to confront the natural universe free of pressures and norms. It’s only in solitude that we have the chance to locate the heart. Solitude leads to the integrity that lets us say things and do things that might be unpopular. But it is built on a foundation of love and support, too. Someone anchored in both love and solitude has the ability to care outwardly, to be vulnerable in the open.

The heart is strengthened and
clarified in relationships, and our
relationship with nature—with other
living things in ways that are nearly
 impossible to express. 



As the heart is illuminated by an independent source, based on no conditions, life becomes profoundly pleasant, simple, and materially light. We require few things, and there is ample luxury in the presence of trees and birds, and other simple things like water and light.

The energy of a free, open-hearted person—someone who is deeply acquainted with themselves—can be felt in their presence, but it does not convey itself well over video. What they have is intangible, invisible, and difficult to express. To someone raised in the standing wave of overwhelm that is our current society, the idea of such a state of being—free of desire yet caring deeply—feels either pointless or pie-in-the-sky.

Our finest spiritual traditions understand the imperative to heal and purify heart, but religions have become operations involving what is written and tangible. And science operates only according to what can be proven. How comfortable are we speaking not from texts, and not from the results of repeated experiments, but from insight and wisdom we’ve gleaned in self-discovery, drawing from a resource that is inherent in nature, in simply being?

It’s a fragile project. Perhaps it’s helpful to imagine an arc that lasts a thousand years. Certainly, healing ecosystems like the oceans and the Amazon will require that kind of timeframe. It is slow-going to change the world through direct acts of love. Progress plays out quietly and away from electronic media, and plays out in acts where no attention or reward is sought. When we talk about persevering in a challenging world, there is the physical necessity of survival, but true perseverance involves a heart that remains clear and compassionate toward all beings despite threat, injury, exhaustion, humiliation, disaster, failure, and violence, such that we have a way to resist violence in ourselves.

The impacts of heart-centered thoughts, words, and actions—acts of caring rooted in caring—ripple far and quickly. Just as ecosystems recover quickly when given key support (I picture the re-introduction of beavers into river ecologies, restoring so many other creatures and systems), the effects of the heart have the potential to achieve amazing things with delightful swiftness.

Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL


Michael H. Richardson

Michael H. Richardson

Michael grew up the younger of two brothers in a small town in Vermont, where his parents ran a wooden jigsaw puzzle business. After studying fine arts at Wesleyan University, he made fine furniture, then worked as a bookbinder and graph... Read More