While I was reading a book today , I came across an interesting proverb that reads, “May what your eyes see stay in your heart.” Given my general interest in proverbs , I thought it would be worthwhile to examine this particular proverb in some detail, given that my view of it is rather nuanced and somewhat bittersweet. One’s eyes can see a great many things, both good and bad, and keeping the memory of our lives alive in our hearts can be a source of encouragement as well as sober reflection. Its goal, of course, is to level off the highs and lows and bring life into some kind of balance, something that is often sought but seldom realized in our lives.
When I first heard of this passage, I must admit my thoughts were first drawn to the sort of dark matters one can see that can stay in the heart. A classic example of this, of course, comes in Jeremiah 39:1-10: “In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem, and besieged it. In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, on the ninth day of the month, the city was penetrated. Then all the princes of the king of Babylon came in and sat in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer, Samgar-Nebo, Sarsechim, Rabsaris, Nergal-Sarezer, Rabmag, with the rest of the princes of the king of Babylon. So it was, when Zedekiah the king of Judah and all the men of war saw them, that they fled and went out of the city by night, by way of the king’s garden, by the gate between the two walls. And he went out by way of the plain. But the Chaldean army pursued them and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. And when they had captured him, they brought him up to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, to Riblah in the land of Hamath, where he pronounced judgment on him. Then the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes in Riblah; the king of Babylon also killed all the nobles of Judah. Moreover he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, and bound him with bronze fetters to carry him off to Babylon. And the Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the houses of the people with fire, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem. Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive to Babylon the remnant of the people who remained in the city and those who defected to him, with the rest of the people who remained. But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah the poor people, who had nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.”
It is, of course, very tragic that the last thing that King Zedekiah, the last of the line of David to rule as a sovereign over Judah befere the Babylonian conquest, saw was the death of his sons before he was blinded and brought into captivity. Nevertheless, this punishment ought not to have been unexpected. After all, Zedekiah had been placed as a puppet ruler directly by Nebuchadnezzar, and swore to be loyal to that particularly mercurial Babylonian king. One should expect harsh treatment if one swears loyalty to a leader and then seeks to rebel against him. Most leaders do not appreciate that sort of conduct at all, and death is the expected sort of treatment for such rebels. If one is a less high-ranking rebel, then it would be natural to expect exile , as happened to the Jewish leadership. For the poor of the land who were left to tend the vineyards and fields, these particular people were probably happy to see the loss of the selfish and grasping elites and the right to have their own vineyards and fields, even with paying taxes to the Babylonians. As much of a disaster as the Babylonian captivity was for the leadership of Judah, it was not a bad thing for the common people, necessarily. What one sees depends a great deal on the eyes that one is looking through.
Not all that one sees and keeps in one’s heart is a traumatic experience, although we seldom require encouragement to remember trauma, for what it’s worth. On the contrary, a lot of what we should keep in our hearts is the memory of love, the knowledge of our God-given talents and abilities, the resources of friends and family to encourage us, and the resources of our own memories. It is not that we should live off of our past glories and neglect the present, but the knowledge of the good that has happened in our lives before can provide some hope that there will be good times again as well as the ability to handle successes when they come. There are some gifts, after all, that only come to one who is ready for them. We must cultivate our hearts to be ready for the blessings of God, and not let ourselves forget the better side of life, which allows us to avoid at least some of the cynicism and bitterness that come far too easily for some of us.
Memory is a funny matter, and it is not easy for us to be fair with regards to our memories. If we remember only the pleasant parts of life, we fail to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the past and gain in wisdom and understanding. If we remember only the unpleasant parts of life, we will struggle against despair and bitterness and cynicism without the ability to draw on or recognize the resources we possess. Remembering both and putting both in their proper place allows us to gain strength from both the good and the bad that we have to face. Drawing resilience from our successful experiences and encouragement from better times allows us to retain a sense of compassion for those who struggle as well as the ability to rejoice in the success of others. Hopefully others are able to respond to us in kind as well.
Why is it that this particular quote would exist in the first place, and why would it come from South America? Given the obscurity of this quote, it is difficult to understand where and from whom this quote came. Did it come from the memory of Inca rule or of the many other peoples who sought freedom from the Spanish and Portuguese who dominated most of the continent? Did it come from those who suffered in the instability of South American countries post-independence? Without more information, it is impossible to know for sure. It is curious, though, what the speakers desired to stay in the heart, because the meaning and significance of the proverb would depend to a great deal of the context of its origin, as well as its use.
This is a point worth reflecting on. The meaning of a saying depends a great deal on the context that it is embedded in. Let us take this particular quote and place it in two contexts as demonstration. Picture a scene where there is a parent and child escaping from a disaster only to turn and see the destruction of their hometown to a violent assault. The parent turns to the child and says, “May what your eyes see stay in your heart.” We would take this as a call for vengeance of the kind that has destroyed regions like the Balkans . On the other hand, let us imagine a different context. Here we have a parent and child and the child is growing up and preparing to leave home, after receiving a loving send-off from his family and close friends in his local community. Here too the parent takes the child aside to say, “May what your eyes see stay in your heart.” Here, though, what is to be remembered is the love of home and family, the knowledge that wherever one goes and whatever one does, one has a secure place and a community of beloved supporters that one should never forget.
What matters, then, is what our eyes see and what fills our heart. Most of us will see a mixture of evil and good, of pleasant and unpleasant, of wisdom and folly, of innocence and corruption. It is up to us to decide what we will treasure in our hearts. Will we allow ourselves to be poisoned by the bitterness and corruption and evil that we see and experience, or will we draw out the sting of such toxins and refine it into wisdom, and fill our hearts with the love and compassion we have for others that we would like to see for ourselves as well. It is, after all, what we keep in our hearts that we give to others. What kind of gift will we give to the world out of our secret treasures within?
 See, for example: