Shira Lankin Sheps
Shira Lankin Sheps
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A change of heart

It took an unwanted cardiac exam to make me realize that I needed to be kind to myself, to forgive myself, and to reach out to God with this new repentance
(courtesy, Shira Lankin Sheps)
(courtesy, Shira Lankin Sheps)

I asked my new cardiologist, “What happens if you find what you are looking for?”

He took a pause and a deep breath and responded, “Then, you will be a case for the whole team.”

I shifted in my seat because I knew what he meant. “It’ll be complicated.”

I was already getting stares in the waiting area because I was sitting just with my husband, mid-30s, and people were wondering why I was there. The EKG technician wondered aloud, “But you are so young?”

People forget that young people can have health problems, too. 

My doctor was very thorough. He was not happy with my blood test results and even more panicked by my family history of young people with cardiac issues. 

The day that I walked into my coronary CT, a scan of my heart, I was terrified. 

Because I knew that if he found what he was looking for, I was going to have to go on another complex health journey. Honestly, at that moment, I didn’t feel strong enough to do it all over again

When the nurse called the day before, she rattled off something in her speedy Hebrew about beta-blockers and valium and I didn’t catch much else. I begged her to have an English-speaker call back so I could understand. No one called back. 

So when I walked into the nurse’s station, my poor heart was working far harder than normal. Beating faster in anticipation of whatever came next. 

The nurse yelled at me and did not give me any medication for the anxiety I was feeling. The beta-blockers I had taken were not doing their job as well as anyone would have liked. 

But when it was my turn, the doctors were so kind. They spoke to me in my mother tongue and explained everything to me. They set me up, but then left the room and I was surprised to find myself all alone. Me and that whirring, loud machine. 

All my anxiety kicked up; there was so much riding on these answers. So much was riding on my ability to stay calm and still. To keep my fear at bay. 

So I asked myself a simple question. 

“Who and what is your heart for?”

As the humming got louder and the spinning of the CT scan got more intense, I closed my eyes, and I saw them all. 

My children. My husband. My family. My friends. The women I write with at The Layers Project. The people I speak to every day who share their personal stories of pain and redemption. 

I even found myself on that list. 

I just held us all in my mind as the machine raged around me, small tears of hope dripping down my face. I kept still and so I was unable to wipe them away. 

The machine and I prayed together. 

“Please God, let my heart be whole so that I can offer it to those who I love. To those who need me. So I can live.”

As it all wound down, I thought about how the heart literally propels our life forces. How our energy is finite and our strength only stretches so far. 

The test ended and I was woozy, but I caught a glimpse of the exact model of my heart, up on the screen. There was a moment of reckoning between us. 

The doctor did not find what he was looking for. Thank God, I got a clean bill of health. 

* * *

That was just a few weeks ago, and before I knew it, the High Holidays began barreling towards me. A natural time for reflection.

So I made a decision to wake up every morning holding the lessons of that day. 

Especially now, as we continue to live in a pandemic, with limited resources. Limited time, limited energy, limited opportunities. 

School has begun, the new year is just underway, and it would be easy to get overwhelmed and bogged down with fear and anxiety — two things that require a lot of energy to maintain.

Now, I tell myself every day, your energy is finite. 

I ask, where will you put it today?

What will you prioritize?

Who will you invest your heart with?

I feel as if, this summer, I got a new lease on life. Now, I am trying to be intentional about how I live it.

Over the last year of the pandemic, I have been on a quest.

I have been on a journey to be kinder to myself. 

Because since the pandemic started sometimes it has felt difficult to succeed. It felt that everything in my power was never enough. That I couldn’t be enough. Life as we knew it turned upside down, and the chaos that went along with that shook up all our lives. 

There didn’t seem to be enough time:

To be a good parent, to invest in my professional goals, to be there for the people who needed me, to invest in the self-care that I needed to get through the rest. 

Moreover, there wasn’t enough brain space, all of it being consumed by endless catastrophic news reports that forced us all to radically change how we understood our world. 

In my work on The Layers Project for the last five years, I have focused on our capacity to be resilient. To find strength in the darker moments of our lives. I interviewed hundreds of women who taught me how life can hold both blessing and pain, and we can mine our own inner strengths to keep going. The lessons I learned from them radically supported my own journey. 

But this past year I needed more. 

I discovered that in order to maintain my own sense of sanity, being strong wasn’t enough. I also needed to learn to be kind. 

I needed to learn to let go of unrealistic expectations and have compassion for myself that what I and the rest of the world were experiencing was new and painful. That I needed to understand that it was OK that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Or what I should be doing next. 

I learned that offering myself compassion in my own inner dialogue as opposed to berating myself for not being enough, not being able to control everything that was so clearly far beyond my reaches — I just simply needed to acknowledge that truth. 

That I wasn’t in control. That God was in control. And I needed to let go. 

Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, I sat in my garden and reflected back on this year and the new voices that spoke to me in my heart.

This new language recognized parts of the liturgy that I had said many times, but perhaps never really understood. 

In all the reading that I had done over the last few months, about the power and opportunity of teshuvah, repentance, and how to develop and invest in self-compassion — something stuck out to me. 

I realized that self-compassion is one of the highest levels of true teshuvah. 

Because in that place, we are finally able to free ourselves from the burdens of the past. We can forgive ourselves for the mistakes that we have made, for our inadequacies, for the ways we are lacking. We can let it all go and be changed. 

In the prayers we recite over and over, we are reminded that God loves us.

I wonder if He wants us to love ourselves, too.

About the Author
Shira Lankin Sheps is a writer, photographer, and clinically trained therapist. She is the creator and publisher of The Layers Project Magazine, an online magazine that explores in-depth insights into the challenges and triumphs of the lives of Jewish women. She is passionate about creating spaces for stories that need to be told and changing the dialogue around stigmatized topics. Her first book is "Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth From Jewish Women," published by Toby Press in 2021. Shira lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children.
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