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April 24, 2019 by admin in Living and Faith Today 0 comments
While chemotherapy was infusing into a vein in John's right arm,  he frowned. Who wouldn't? To encourage him, the nurses urged him to be happy as to improve the chances he would get better.  Taking their advice seriously, the next day after he recovered from his treatment John sought out books on happiness at a Barnes and Noble as well as happiness apps on his phone.  To his amazement he found a treasure-trove of books promoting happiness at the book store as well as a thousand happiness apps on his phone. John was in luck! As he started to read these resources, John quickly discovered the advice given was for activating what was inside, not what's outside.  The resources urged self-discovery, producing emotional independence, not interdependence on anyone or anything else--spending more time with one's self, not engaging with the outside world.    Since John was estranged from his wife and children and on the road for his business, John was alone most of the time. “I can't believe being alone even more can be the answer—I'm already alone ninety percent of the time, and I'm not happy,”  John pined. John was out of luck! Though there is great emphasis on solitude and introspection in our current cultural scene, research has shown that we really need the opposite—we need relationships.  Extroverts as well as introverts in multiple studies concur that what makes them happy is other people. These results are irrespective of race, gender, age, income, and social status.  Social interaction is the best indicator of a happy life, and as the nurses suggested, is also good for your health. Loneliness provides a big risk of premature death, greater than smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, and twice as risky as obesity.  Bottom line: The most significant thing we can do for our well-being is to develop relationships and friendships. Because of his family situation and travel, this would not easy for John.  However John is not alone in his life situation nor is his situation unique, but others have solved this problem.  What is the solution? In the Bible I found a character who overcame some of the same problems as John and could provide a solution for John.   Soon after the days of Jesus, the apostle Paul made three extraordinary missionary trips to spread Christianity. He was either unmarried or a widow and alone for long periods of time as he travelled throughout Asia Minor and Europe.  How did Paul feel about his situation? In the city of Troas (in modern day Turkey) Paul lamented: “I had no peace of mind because I did not find my [friend and fellow missionary] Titus there” (2 Corinthians 1:13). Therefore he travelled to Philippi (in modern day Greece) to seek out Titus.  In Philippi Paul found relief when he located Titus: “In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you” (2 Corinthians 7:13). Paul was happy for two reasons: He was reunited with his friend Titus, and because Titus had been generously welcomed and accepted by the people in Greece.  Paul consciously sought out his friend. John needs to reach out to his neighbors where he lived, to acquaintances in his church, and professional colleagues on his travels.  “I'm not going to sit in a pew by myself anymore,” John quipped. It is not easy to establish or maintain a friendship or relationship.  It takes effort and not always smooth sailing like for Paul in the first century. Yet John admitted, “I've had trouble with my relationships—I know that,  but I do feel better with other people rather than being alone.” Despite the difficulties of social interaction, happiness is other people.  Work at relationships. They are worth it and can save your life! And of course, make you happy.      

Friends are good for your health

March 19, 2019 by admin in Living and Faith Today 0 comments
Jack came to my office with his brother.  As his brother was walking toward the treatment room for his chemotherapy, Jack took me aside.  “I'm usually too busy to come, but I know my brother is doing real bad, “Jack said, “I want to know if I'll do better than him if I get cancer.  I mean, he drinks, smokes, is overweight, and probably eats potato chips for breakfast. I do none of that. I'll be okay, right?” With a little prodding I discovered that Jack did not have much time for anything except work.  “It cost me my marriage, but you can't have everything,” Jack continued. Friends, I asked? Jack shrugged.  Then I said something that really shocked Jack: Recent research has shown that people with poor habits live longer if they have friends than people with good habits who did not have friends.  People without friends are three times more likely to die compared with those with strong friendships over a nine year period in one study. Jack was dumbfounded. “You mean being alone is worse for you than smoking?” Having friends or social connectedness has profound physical and emotional effects upon a person's health.  Numerous studies have shown lower stress, lower blood pressure, increased blood flow to the brain and other vital organs, along with fewer cardiac diseases in individuals with friends.  Additionally, measured inflammation levels are lower, immunologic function is maintained even with aging, and wound healing is better. At the gene level, those with friends have diminished genes that turn on inflammation.  In terms of mental health, those with friends have less depression, more self-esteem, more compassion, are more trustworthy, and cooperate better with others. How can friendship have such profound effects?  The Bible states that “A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17: 17).   How does friendship that embodies love look? One of the great examples of friendship in the Bible is that of David and Jonathan.  Though taking place 3000 years ago, this example of friendship is still relevant to us today. King Saul of Israel, Jonathan's father, had become jealous of David's exploits and victories as commander of Saul's army and obsessed in wanting to kill David.  Jonathan realized David was innocent of any wrongdoing and a faithful follower of the king. As a result of his friendship with David, Jonathan spoke well of David, putting his own safety and standing in the family at risk: “Let not the king to wrong to his servant David; has not not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly.  He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistines. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?” (1 Samuel 19: 4-5) Jonathan continued to support David even when David went into exile as the king continued to threaten his life.  Such was the friendship so close between David and Jonathan that David spoke at Jonathan's funeral after Jonathan had died in battle: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very close to me. Your love for me was wonderful” (2 Samuel 1: 26). Jonathan's life was cut short by death on the battlefield, but certainly David's life was greatly impacted and prolonged by Jonathan's actions. Research has shown that the attitude and action of love produces beneficial effects upon the individual as that individual reaches out to others.   On a biochemical level, love releases chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and oxytocin, that cause calmness, pleasure, and happiness. As Paul in the Book of Acts recalls the words of Jesus: “'It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) with the word “blessed” having the same root as the word “happy.”  With all these effects, no wonder friendship has such profound and powerful effects upon a person, even overcoming detrimental habits and life styles. Jack had a number of laudable habits that contribute to long life, but was missing the vital component of social connectedness (friendship) that in itself has profound benefits to health.  Is Jack an isolated case? Recent research has shown that more than twenty-five percent of Americans had no one to confide in, no close friend.  

Finding meaning in retirement

February 19, 2019 by admin in Living and Faith Today 0 comments
Oscar was in the office for his regular check-up.  Fortunately he had a form of chronic leukemia that required no treatment for now.  His challenge was his recent retirement: “I'm finished at the accounting firm I established.  I don't know what to do. I'm ready for anything--at least I think I am.” Retirement can be years of potential: extending what we have already done or redirecting us into new possibilities.  We may not have the vigor of our earlier years but we can compensate in many ways to be productive and creative. The renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein said he adjusted for age-induced declines in his skills by selecting a more limited repertoire, optimizing his performance by extra practice, and altering the tempo somewhat.  Others need or want to change to something new such as Martha Graham the great dancer who became a choreographer when she could not dance any longer. Because of Oscar's familiarity with the Old Testament, I offered him as encouragement an example of someone who made a substantial life change in his latter years.  Abram, who lived 4000 years ago, was a wealthy businessman living in the city of Ur of the Chaldeans in present day Iraq. Located on the crossroad of the major trade route of the ancient world, Ur was a busy business hub with a vast library and extensive schools.  Abram, secure and comfortable at age seventy-five “with “possessions he had accumulated and people he had acquired” (Genesis 11:5), received a call from God: “Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you (Genesis 12:1).”  What? Abram was asked to give up a thriving and stimulating urban environment for Canaan, a desolate, primitive hardscrabble land 800 miles to the west, without any cities or culture. He would have to travel by camels and live in tents—possibly for the rest of his life.  He would leave his extended family and even change his name to Abraham! Yet Abram set out for Canaan and embarked on three new areas of activities when he arrived.  He became a successful livestock owner and seller of tents, a military leader, and a believer who served the Lord Almighty.  Abram stepped out in faith in his senior years leaving his former life and embraced these new changes. God showed him he was to make Abram into a great nation:  “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12: 2-3).” Just as Abram had abilities and aptitudes that could be channeled into new areas, so does Oscar with managerial and entrepreneurial skills that could be reset in his senior years in different fields.  “My son-in-law has bought some land locally and has been talking about building an affordable housing development. I could help him with the management side of the project. I'd also like to give something back to the community, providing home ownership for people with limited means.” We may not be able to pursue the roles and passions of our earlier years and our physical and mental health may limit us in time, but we can pursue something new that can be exciting and rewarding in our senior years.  As Oscar was leaving the office he quipped: “Keep me going, doc. You've convinced me I've still got a lot I can do.”    

What Can You Do When You Become Disabled?

July 04, 2018 by admin in Living and Faith Today 0 comments
John looked depressed as he was wheeled into my office.  He had every right to be. Though in remission from lymphoma and likely cured, his disease began in a critical area of his spine, leaving his legs paralyzed despite effective radiotherapy and chemotherapy.  “Why did God do this to me—I'm only thirty-five? I'll never accomplish anything again,” John lamented, “I just want to be left in my room alone.” I tried to encourage him, but he responded, “I'd rather die.”  Was there any hope for John? I offered John the recent story of a famous Broadway director.  At twenty-eight, Jack Hofsiss was the youngest director to win a Tony Award for his work in the 1979 production of “The Elephant Man.”   This success opened additional opportunities in the theater and Hollywood, but six years later Jack Hofsiss became permanently paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident in a swimming pool.  He too did not feel he had any future and was greatly depressed. His care-giver was afraid to leave him alone in his room, fearing he would harm himself. Jack also asked “Why,” but received no answer.  This man of faith eventually realized “I had to give up asking.” Fortunately a producer offered Jack a directing job at a summer theatre.  “God bless Josie Ababy,” Jack said of his friend who provided this opportunity to work at the Berkshire Theater Festival.  Though he could not direct in the same fashion as when he could walk--hopping on and off the stage and brandishing his arms at the actors, he could articulate clearly his ideas and instructions to the actors, a skill “I learned from the Jesuits at Georgetown University.”  After this first successful opportunity, Jack Hofsiss returned to New York and went on to have an illustrious career directing many notable productions and teaching directing and acting at two distinguished drama programs before he died at age 65. There was also encouragement for John in the Bible with stories about productive people with disabilities.  One example is Jacob, a Hebrew patriarch who lived 4000 years ago. He made his fortune by tricking his brother out of his birthright.  Though successful Jacob had to flee ancient Canaan fearing the revenge of his brother. When Jacob returned years later wealthy with a large retinue of animals and big family,  he had to face God at the brook Jabbok. Was it because of his prior life-style of manipulating and conniving? There Jacob's hip was wrenched out of socket in the struggle, and he could no longer walk without a limp.  This experience changed his life. He began worshiping God and restored his relationship with his brother. He was very successful for many years with greater riches and land, and a large family. Even his name was changed to Israel:  “Because you have struggled with God” (Genesis 32: 28). A thousand years later the pivotal Kind David came from the line of his son Judah. Ultimately through David's line came Jesus. Jacob's effect upon his family and mankind extends to this day, four millennia later. Both from ancient accounts and recent examples, there were many ways John could be encouraged about what he could do in the future despite his disability.  While there might have been an answer to “Why?” for Jacob in the Bible based upon his prior manipulative actions toward his brother, for John, the director Jack Hofsiss, and many others, there is no answer—it's beyond our understanding.  Like most, we must move on from the question “Why did it happen?” to “What do I do now?” John might not be able to walk, but he has many resources to help him.  Additionally he has capabilities and abilities that can allow him to achieve much more in the future.  John's wife and three girls have been very supportive. John works in an office with his success dependent upon the agile use of a computer and phone—both he has utilized very effectively in the past and can continue to use in the future. John's attitude did not change right away, but the discussion had started.  After a few visits, he started to see what the future could bring, but it took time.  

Does a 17th Century Poem about “Community” Have Relevance Now?

June 18, 2018 by admin in Living and Faith Today 0 comments
Having seen the scans and laboratory reports, Phyllis was not surprised what I told her that day in the hospital.  With a sigh she responded, “So I'm dying. Nobody will know and nobody will care.” Her sad words were unfortunately not unique to her nor to our era.  Phyllis' lament reminded me of King David's words three millennia ago recorded in the Bible during a time David felt abandoned and betrayed: “No one is concerned for me.  I have no refuge; no one cares for my life” (Psalm 142:4). Many years ago in Portland church bells would peel when someone died.  This custom was revived after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shootings. Church bells around the country including at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke's on State Street were rung once for each victim as a sign of remembrance.  In the case of the Las Vegas shootings, it was a reminder of the deaths of so many in our greater community. The early practice of church bell ringing, now gone from most cities and communities, is a relic of the days of communal life in a village or hamlet, where the joys and sorrows of the individual were commonly shared and the parish church was the center of all activities. The ringing of church bells when someone died was called “tolling” from the old English word “telling”--telling the community that one of theirs had died.    This tolling of bells was immortalized in a poem by the famous writer John Donne in 1624: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend's were, each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” (“Devotions''--Meditation 17).  Modern life, tending to separateness, has done much to destroy this feeling of kinship and many old customs have been lost in consequence.  Today a tolling bell would likely go unheeded in the bellowing din of busy urban life, with few likely stopping for a moment at work or play to consider with a kindly thought a soul passing into eternity.    Should we be touched by the passing of an individual in our community?  When asked what were the greatest commandments, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).  Those words spoken 2000 years ago in the present tense were meant not only for long ago but also for today. Because all people are included as neighbors as described by Jesus, we are bound to demonstrate love to them. Spending the winter in Florida with an older population, I hear the siren of an EMT vehicle responding to someone who has died or is dying several times a week, even waking me up at night.  While driving around, I often have to pull over as an EMT vehicle approaches with siren wailing. Is this experience a petty annoyance of daily life or a wake-up call to be engaged to what is happening to others around us?   The siren cry of the EMT vehicle may be the tolling bell of today, alerting us that someone in our community is in distress or has died.  If you hear today's “tolling bell” of an EMT vehicle in the next several months, it could be that the EMT vehicle has been summoned to the home of my patient whose prognosis is grave.  Would you please remember Phyllis when you hear the siren? Can I tell her someone will know and someone will care?