Matters of the heart

Why do we like what we like? The heart has its own reasons

Photo by RTUSHFOTO at

December 31, 2021
4 min read
Robbie Young

For the most part, we tend to make decisions based on what we understand to be good for us. This gives me the sense that I have control over my own life. If I am deciding which car to buy, I can weigh up the pros and cons of different models and then make my choice. It is the same with changing my job or investing in a new business venture. 

All this seems to fall apart when it comes to matters of the heart. The heart has its own reasons but they are based on what attracts me and not on what I choose. 

I wish that I had the power / To make these feelings stop

I lose all self-control / In matters of the heart

(Tracy Chapman, Matters of the Heart)

The head can ask, “When is our next meeting scheduled?” Only the heart can ask, “When will I see you again?”  

What makes me attracted to the music of Bob Dylan but not to the music of Ed Sheeran? I really don’t know, but I do know that I never chose to like the music of Bob Dylan. It just happened. 

In matters of the heart, nothing is predictable. 


Where the heart really comes into its own is when I relate to other people. Here too we are beyond the realm of choice. I cannot choose to feel an attraction for another person. When I am overcome by an attraction towards another person, I really don’t know where it has come from. 

In my first week at college, I attended a lecture that was part of my philosophy course. I immediately took a liking to the lecturer. As the weeks passed, it became a fascination. His lectures were the highlight of my week.  

Was it his personality, his teaching method, the content of his lecture that attracted me? Again, I don’t know. If I were to attempt an answer, I would say that he embodied a truth that I can live by. 

Recently I watched a YouTube video of Mitsuku Uchida performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. I was instantly attracted to her. She fascinated me. If I had the choice of inviting people to dinner at my home, she would be high on the list. The French philosopher Jean Luc Marion made a similar impression on me while I was watching a lecture he gave. 

Many years ago, a person took me into her confidence and told me about a particularly difficult period in her life that she was going through. Was it her openness that has left an indelible mark on my heart? I cannot say. 

Let it be

However, the heart can be a two-edged sword. I can be overcome by the destructive power of what the poet William Butler Yeats called “passionate intensity.” In a fit of rage, I can do something that ends up in my being sent to prison. Attraction can be fatal. Here my actions following an attraction are crucial. 

One response to being attracted to something is the desire to possess it. I see the latest smartphone model and I tell myself that I must have it. It is more difficult to respond to an object that attracts me by saying: let it be. I see a flower growing in the forest. Let it be. I do not have to pluck it in order to enjoy it. 

This attitude fully comes into play when I am attracted by another person. If in any way I desire to possess the person to satisfy some inner need, then it is likely that it will end badly. Instead, like the flower, I must let the person be. I can give thanks for the presence of such a person in the world. I can continue to be inspired by their beauty, truth or goodness. 

Of course, it is a gift when the person I am attracted to responds, and a relationship of reciprocity begins. However, I cannot force the other to be attracted to me. Love is truly love when I allow the other to be.

Catching what is loveable

And what about a person for whom instead of feeling an attraction I feel like turning away my eyes? Can I still love him or her? To put it in this way seems to imply that it is in my power to decide whom I will love and whom I will not love.  

Instead, love is first of all a capacity of my heart to catch what is lovable in every person. It is this capacity that allows me to see a manifestation of beauty, truth and goodness in the elderly person in a retirement home dying of loneliness, the mother and child in a squalid refugee camp, the prisoner in an overcrowded jail.

Love does not begin with a moral decision to help another person. It begins with a heart that is tender enough to be overwhelmed by how precious the person is.

First published in New City, London

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