Because I have been essentially bed-bound/apartment-bound since last July without any visitors, I had no expectations for my birthday and no plans. However, several great things happened: A friend traveled a great distance to take me to lunch at a restaurant on the street adjacent to mine. I decided to wear a dress that I have never worn out before, because I never have a place/situation to wear it. It has one long sleeve, an open back, and the other shoulder and arm completely bare. I didn’t feel comfortable taking off my coat for a long time, but finally did. At some point, a man approached me on his way out and said, “Excuse me, but I just wanted to tell you that your dress really made my day! I was sitting at that table behind you, enjoying the view the whole time. I never see anything like it, especially in this town!” I’ve never received a compliment like this in my life! And it was even more special that it happened on my birthday! His decision to share how I brightened his day with me (instead of keeping it to himself) really made my day in turn! I broke my diet and enjoyed some scallops in a cream sauce. And when I returned home, I found out that another friend had sent me a beautiful arrangement of flowers! I also picked up my car from an oil change and spent some time giving the owner tips on how to reduce the pain he has been experiencing in his upper arm and shoulder due to major surgery he had 10 weeks ago. This was the first time he has ever been injured in his life (!) and he said he has been popping ibruprofen pills like candy! He is also used to sleeping only 3-4 hours per day! Sometimes, I can’t believe how different human lives can be! It felt great to connect with someone and share some things that I have learned.
I haven’t been able to participate much at all in the world for a long time now, but the universe reminded me in several ways that my life is still meaningful and that there are some who still care! I am appreciative. Today I am trying my best to recover from being awake for 15 straight hours yesterday- something I haven’t been able to do for a very, very long time.
This is a beautifully produced short video on the story of Appalachian Trail angel, “Ponytail Paul” (who I never met). It demonstrates the healing power of nature and hiking trails for those who walk them and those who build their lives around them. I often get asked what kind of people hike long trails. I almost always answer that it is ultimately a healing journey. The first person who hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (in 1948) was World War 2 veteran Earl Shaffer, to “walk off the war”. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As time has gone on, more and more people have found the peace that living and walking in nature provides. Please enjoy the beautiful videography of some of the AT in Maine, along with the story of Paul.
“Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.”
This is a wonderful reminder from Elizabeth Gilbert on what it means to be generous. It doesn’t take being wealthy to be generous. It takes character. Some of the poorest human beings on this earth are the most generous beings, while some of the richest are the least. Generosity is not just about giving money. It means giving whatever you have- time, love, patience, forgiveness- to those who need it. It’s about keeping your heart open and expanding its loving energy into the world. Let us ask ourselves each morning, “How can I be more generous today?”.
“I woke up today thinking about generosity again, and remembering an interaction that happened to me many years ago, which has stuck in my mind ever since.
I was talking to a neighbor of mine about a well-known philanthropist, and I was saying how much I admired this person’s generosity. My neighbor scoffed, rolled her eyes, and said, “Well, I could be generous, too, if I was a billionaire!”
My friends, this was somebody who did not understand what the word “generosity” means.
Generosity does not mean waiting until you’re a billionaire to share yourself with the world. Generosity is about a spirit of living, not a calculus of: “How much do I have?” Generosity is way of being in the world — a way that says, “I have more than I need, and I will take the overflow of myself and share it with others.” Generosity is not only about money — in fact, it usually isn’t about money at all. Generosity is about ANYTHING that you give of yourself to your fellow man — your time, your love, your patience, your forgiveness, your acceptance, your food, your creativity, your expertise, your grace.
To possess a generous spirit has nothing to do with your income. You either have a generous spirit, or you don’t. Some of the poorest people I’ve ever met have humbled me with their generosity. Money may come and go in people’s lives, but a spirit of generosity can last forever. If all we needed in order to be generous was a pile of money, then the mega-rich among us would be the most giving, loving, tender-hearted, magnanimous people on earth…and they aren’t.
I mean, some of them are. But many of them are not.
I’ve sat in rooms with millionaires who spoke about how hard it is for them to be generous, because they aren’t sure their charitable dollars are actually going “to the right place” — and therefore, they don’t give. They shared horror stories of badly run charities, and ungrateful recipients. In the end, they all seemed to agree that it’s better not to give at all. The only thing I heard behind their conversation were the voices of people who were looking for reasons not to give of themselves to the world…because, deep in their souls, they STILL didn’t believe they had enough to share.
Generosity is not about how much you have; generosity about how much you BELIEVE you have.
And your spirit of generosity — if you are lucky enough to have one — must be protected (even more than your stuff or your status must be protected.) A wise woman once said to me: “Don’t do anything with your beautiful soul that will lessen your ability to be generous.” Don’t deplete your heart, so that you have nothing left to share with others. Don’t degrade yourself, so that you become small and hard. Don’t expend so much energy on striving and hoarding that you forget to give.
Generosity asks, “What are we here for? To increase our stash and our empire and our dominance forever? Or to push our energies outward, toward the broken world?”
Generosity is my favorite virtue. Well, that and curiosity.
My favorite people in the world are the generous and the curious.
But if forced to choose between them, I choose The Generous.” -Elizabeth Gilbert
Last night, I watched the movie, “The Big Short”, which I highly encourage everyone to see. I walked out of the theater feeling incredulous, angry, upset, and sad that no consequences were delivered to those who played a role in stealing from the poor, displacing thousands of hard working people from their homes, or contributing to the loss of thousands of jobs in 2007 and 2008, and that no changes were made to the corrupt financial system at all! Bank fraud created a worldwide economic collapse and the only ones who were forced to pay a price were the innocent people who were stolen from while greedy, morally-wrong people profited. What is even more unbelievable is that this same corruption is allowed to continue today! All night, I kept wondering what can be done to change this system (besides electing Bernie Sanders for the next President as a start). Why do we hear about these horrible truths and injustices, return home and continue about our daily lives, letting everything remain as it is? This isn’t entertainment; these are the forces that are directing the course and quality of our lives. I felt incapable of remaining silent and compliant in what was just brought to my attention. Non-action is what keeps all injustices in place.
I was also trying to learn as much as I could over the weekend about Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, centuries of history and thousands of pages of reading can not be consumed in a couple of hours. I must shamefully admit that I have not studied black history since my high school years, and that I have a lot of re-learning and new learning to do in these upcoming months. What I do know is that the words, actions, and spiritual leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. are just as powerful today as they were 50 and 60 years ago. These principles apply not only to racial injustice, but to economic injustice, class, sex, and gender oppression, the poisoning of our food system, the corruption of our campaign finance system undermining democracy, Big Pharma, and many other wrongs. The injustices that King was against are tremendously similar (and actually intersect) with the injustices portrayed in “The Big Short”.
Few people realize that segregation was started as a means to keep poor whites poor. After the Civil War, there were no segregation laws. It was easy to keep poor whites working for near starvation wages because they could easily be replaced by former black slaves, who would be paid even less. However, in the late 1800’s, leaders of the Populist movement began awakening the poor white masses, as well as the former black slaves to the fact that they were being taken advantage of by the southern political powers, driven by the Bourbon interests. With a divide and conquer strategy, a segregated society was engineered to stop the imminent uprising of the collective poor. Suddenly, it was a crime for blacks and whites to come together and meet as equals. The real issue behind the Populist movement (a powerful few growing richer off the labor of the poor) was diverted away from the minds of whites. And blacks, who previously did have the right to vote, lost this ability through changes in voting laws. It is difficult to comprehend that just over 50 years ago, African Americans were still being actively prevented from their right to vote. And today, this right is still trying to be taken from them!
Not only was Martin Luther King, Jr. protesting racial inequality, he was very much against economic inequality, as well. Today, the richest 62 people on earth hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion! More and more people are denied basic rights and opportunity. This time of near record levels of poverty, obscene wealth inequality, and exploitation has become the greatest moral issue of our time.
All problems are inherently rooted in separation. When that separation leads to oppression, the way to right it is for large enough masses of individuals to come together, form a collective, and take action. It is silence and division that allows injustice to persist.
In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the remembrance of his tremendous legacy and spiritual guidance, I have compiled some of his most well-known words of wisdom. For me, this is only a start to learning more about this man, the history of oppression, and the spiritual principles that will bring the universe back into a more just equilibrium. Today, we have the responsibility of continuing Dr. King’s mission.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority….. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong…
An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift out national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
“We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing create, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but … groups are more immoral than individuals.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.”
“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
“And when I speak of love I’m not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”
“To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the
existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate; violence begets
violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of
hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
“Nonviolent resistance … is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power of infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”
“I’m concerned about a better World. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood and sisterhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence… And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems.”
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action.”
“In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Very few people seem to understand the lifelong effects of chronic childhood trauma. In different parts of my life, I’ve had many people tell me they did not believe me when I described my mother (it’s hard for many to fathom an unloving, non-nurturing parent). More recently, I had yoga teachers tell me that I was making my struggles out to be “worse” than those of others when simply relaying some things I was going though. These responses felt hurtful to me. Because I was not “seen” or listened to or supported as a child, and have felt largely invisible for most of my life, being understood is a very rare, and therefore extremely important feeling for me. Earlier this month, as I read the book, “Childhood Interrupted” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, , I finally felt understood. I wanted to shout out to the world some of the things she was reporting. At last, a book was written that explained the reasons I am the way I am and why I feel the way I do. It also explains why I (and many others who have experienced similar childhoods) am so sick now. This book explains my life!
There is a VERY high correlation between chronic adversity in childhood and chronic illness in adults (heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety, autoimmune disorders). While many factors contribute to chronic disease , including genetics, environmental toxins, nutrition, infection, and viruses, those who suffer from childhood adversity are at an increased risk because their bodies have been pumping out stress hormones over the course of their lives with no regulation to shut them down. The constant release of stress hormones causes inflammation throughout the body, which eventually turns into disease. If the immune system were a barrel, those suffering from chronic toxic stress would reach adulthood with a barrel already half-full. When environmental toxins, poor processed nutrition, infections, viruses, and adult stresses are added in, the barrel spills over and disease develops. Even those with healthy habits and lifestyles become sick. It’s as if we, who have experienced difficult childhoods, are a ticking time bomb. It is only a matter of years before disease will develop. Time does not heal all wounds. It actually conceals many of them.
Nakazawa interviews several adults who experienced chronic trauma in their youth, and who now suffer from chronic illness. Echoing my feelings, one said, “I never felt okay in the world.” Like her, I have always felt something separating me from most others.
When a child’s trauma stems from his or her caregiver, he or she never feels safe. Instead, the child learns to be on constant alert. His or her fight or flight system is never able to turn off. Because a child can not fight or flee from a parent, as his survival is also dependent on that person, he is left with no choice but to freeze instead. Shutting down becomes the only method of survival. Trauma remains stuck in the cells of the body, altering brain and immunological functioning for life. Chronic stress is much more toxic to the body than a one time, perhaps more violent event. Recurrent humiliation has been shown to have a slightly more detrimental impact than other forms of abuse, and is correlated with a higher likelihood of adult illness and depression. War veterans are not the only group of people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder!
The developing brain of someone undergoing constant stress becomes inflamed due to the steady stream of neurochemicals being released, resetting the tone of the brain for the rest of their life. When microglial cells that scan the brain, checking to see if it is safe, go “off-kilter” due to chronic, unpredictable stress, they prune away neurons, killing necessary brain cells for regulating emotions and calming stress. The resulting loss of grey and white matter leads to depression, anxiety disorders, and other disease. When combined with the normal pruning of brain neurons in adolescence, due to a time of specialization in things a person is interested in and good at, a person who has suffered from early adversity is left with far fewer neurons overall. This pruning process explains why depression often first appears in those in high school or college. (I personally distinctly remember feeling like I had a “hole” in my brain during my senior year in high school!) These changes in the brain lower a person’s set point of well-being. They experience far fewer positive moods, feel constant anxiety, and aren’t able to live life fully. Other changes in the brain structure include changes in the receptors of the hippocampus which help modulate stress hormone production, a shrinking of the size of the hippocampus and cerebral grey matter, and an impaired regulatory capacity of the brain’s fear circuitry (the frontal lobe, amygdala, and hippocampus).
Approximately fifteen percent of the population also has a variant of the gene called 5-HTTLPR, which causes them to be highly sensitive. This gene regulates serotonin: a neurotransmitter that aids in the body’s ability to rebound from trauma and distress. Those with the short/short version of this gene tend to be more highly sensitive to their daily environment than others. They recover less quickly, but also respond more deeply to positive nurturing. They feel pain more deeply than most, but are also more intuitive and receptive. (I definitely have this variant!). Unless they find an adult to offer them support and guidance, people with this variant who suffer from childhood adversity “face the greatest likelihood of suffering from depression in adulthood…. They get a double dose of inflammatory drip from early on, and for a very long time.” Differences in the way siblings respond to the same environment can be explained by having different variations of this gene, as well as having had different experiences within the same family.
The most critical period in a person’s development is the time spent in the womb until the age of three. In my yoga teacher training, we did a meditation exercise in which we had to imagine ourselves as newly born infants. Our teacher wanted us to believe that at that stage, we were completely happy. I raised my hand and disagreed. I felt that all of the months in my mother’s womb had already created a negative experience for me. I did not feel that I was a happy, blank slate upon my birth. My teacher continued to insist that I was. Fortunately, this author does validate what I have always felt and known. A chronically stressed mother bathes her unborn child in stress hormones, which have a tremendous influence on the baby’s nervous system. A neglectful mother will further hinder the baby’s ability to regulate her own nervous system. And a mother’s physiology will be picked up and felt by the baby. When a baby is not nurtured, it deeply affects its ability to attach and feel safe in the world.
Many of the studies on childhood adversity use scores from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study to calculate statistics on developing adult illness. In all studies performed, the higher one’s ACE score, the more likely that person is to develop disease later in life. Those who score 4 or more have been statistically shown to be 1,220 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those who scored 0. With each ACE score, a women’s risk of developing an autoimmune disorder increases by 20%, while men’s risk increases by 10%..(While testosterone suppresses the immune system, estrogen increases the production of autoantibodies, which contribute to autoimmune disease. Certain men also have a form of a gene that protect them from depression). Sixty percent of women who scored four or more also suffered from chronic depression.
Perhaps the most alarming study was one performed in 1993 on the medical records of 126 healthy male Harvard undergraduates. It found that 91% of the men who, thirty-five years earlier, cited that their relationship with their mother was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a serious illness by middle age. And a staggering 100% of those who said their relationship with both parents was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” developed serious diseases by middle age! “The Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers concluded that no other single factor was more significantly related to illness than the degree of parental closeness one enjoyed growing up. In fact, lack of parental closeness was a more significant contributor to later disease than smoking, drinking, parental divorce, having a parent die, or being exposed to harmful, toxic environmental substances.”
Love is not a frivolous word to be casually thrown around. It is the single most important element in the life of a human being. The love of one person has the capacity to change the entire trajectory of another’s life. Attachment researcher Louis Cozolino wrote that we are not the survival of the fittest; we are the survival of the nurtured. “Those who are nurtured best survive best.” I could not agree more.
Thank you to Donna Jackson Nakazawa for your work and for helping so many of us feel understood!
For most of us, the New Year is a time filled with hope and new possibilities. It is a chance to both do and be something different with the expectation of a better outcome. However, for the majority of us, it usually doesn’t take long for this hope to turn into discouragement. We discover, once again, that change is hard. Without the proper preparation, support, space, readiness, and willingness to let go of old patterns, our resolutions to do things differently quickly fall back into our old habits and routines. We become disappointed in ourselves and lose hope that our lives can actually change. When our expectations and reality don’t meet, it is easy to feel like we have failed. And more than having failed, we feel like we ARE failures.
I didn’t make any resolutions for the new year, but I did take the opportunity of a fresh start to begin my meditation practice again (which fell off in December), to re-start my daily gratitude journal, and to return to doing daily lessons in ‘A Course in Miracles’. It took only a few days into the new year to feel completely overwhelmed with the task of doing each of these things on a daily basis. I was also trying to more regularly update my blog, read, and continue to make my healthy meals. I felt like there were too many articles to read, too many podcasts to be listened to, too many e-mails to be written, too many dishes to wash, and not enough time to do this all. I would find myself at midnight racing to do my meditation, brush my teeth, write in my journal, read my daily lesson, and try to fit in a few pages of reading.
When I opened up my journal on December 31, I found a little worm, very much alive, on the page I had last written in. It had emerged from its cocoon on the opposite page. I sat in my bed, dumbstruck at the sight of this creature in my precious book. When did it make its home in my collection of thoughts and why was I just finding out about it now? A worm did not feel like a welcoming greeting for a new year! I saw that I had made it to January 28th last year before I abandoned my written gratitude practice, and that the year before, I had made it to January 25th. Here I was again, with a new opportunity to try. (Third time’s the charm?)
Committing to do something every single day is a very challenging task. Too much of life is not under our control. There will be plenty of days when we feel so overwhelmed with things that need to be done, that we can not do the things we had hoped to do. There will be days that we are too sick or too exhausted to complete our goals. What we must remember is that life is an act of balance. Nothing magical will happen when we stick to a diet or exercise plan for 30 days in a row, or manage to meditate or write in a gratitude journal for 365 straight days. Our goals and intentions help us keep to a better path, but life will always present us with challenges and obstacles that don’t allow OUR way. We will fall down, or be lead astray at times. These fluctuations are a necessary part of balance. It is in our getting back up that we reunite with it. We can only do OUR best, in any given moment, given the ever-changing circumstances around us.
Perhaps one of the most rewarding and beneficial things we can learn is the art of self-forgiveness. Perfection is never possible. It only brings pain and punishment. When we learn to become softer and more gentle with ourselves, we can extend these same qualities to those around us. In doing so, we help to free each other. We allow space to open to what is, instead of what or how we think things (or ourselves, or others) should be. We begin to release ourselves from our chains in exchange for broader sight. A Course in Miracles says, “Some of your greatest advances you have judged as failures, and some of your deepest retreats you have evaluated as success”. We our often not our own best judges. What we can learn to do, however, is become our own best friend.
Real and lasting change requires time and consistent practice. Mistakes are a necessary part of practice, as is course-correcting. Nothing in life is linear. If we train ourselves to focus on the things we DID do, instead of the things we failed to do, we will create momentum for further change. Focusing on the things we were not able to do only mires us in despair and guilt. They keep us stuck. Likewise, focusing on what was good in our day, and not what was bad, trains us to collect more of the good. Over time, what we collect acquires roots. We can choose to cultivate a garden of beautiful flowers, or one of weeds.
The start of a new calendar year is just an arbitrary, man-made date. The truth is that we are always being offered a new beginning. Every morning, we are given the opportunity for a fresh start. We are also given one with every new hour and with every new breath. We can learn that with each conscious fully released exhale, we can completely begin anew with the next inhale. Every time we follow a full cycle of breath, or close our eyes and take a minute to breathe deeply and allow ourselves to be fully in the present moment with no pressures, expectations, or to-do lists weighing on us, we are allowing ourselves the opportunity to stop and start again, to infuse our lives with more peace moment by moment, to re-wire our old thoughts and patterns, and to allow space for the things we desire more of.
May you always remember that you have the capability and the right to begin again.
When I was in college, I majored in biology and thought many times about applying to medical school. I wanted to be a sports medicine doctor. But I fell into what was probably the deepest period of depression my senior year and nearly didn’t finish my last semester. There were times I was having trouble even walking, the depression was so bad. I decided not to apply to medical school because I felt that I did not have a support system and that I needed at least a minimal one in order to get through such a strenuous time. I also worried about having enough energy to operate on no sleep as required in residency. In my mid-twenties, I thought once again about applying, but never did. The death of my brother at that time sent me into another very deep depression. As the years go on, I am increasing glad that I chose not to go down that path.
In this well written and researched article, Meghan O’Rourke recounts her very long and frustrating experience with the medical community in trying to learn what was causing her chronic symptoms (not unlike my own), and learns that doctors are also becoming just as disillusioned with the system as told in several newly published books on the subject.
She writes, “In 1973, 85 percent of physicians said they had no doubts about their career choice. In 2008, only 6 percent “described their morale as positive,” … Doctors today are more likely to kill themselves than are members of any other professional group.”
6 percent?! I feel even better about my decision after reading that statistic. Not only are patients becoming increasingly more angry about the lack of compassion and care they are receiving, doctors are becoming more and more frustrated about the limitations imposed on them by insurance companies and system bureaucracy.
To me, the most striking part of this article was this: “Yet empathy is anything but a frill: not only is it crucial to doctors’ humanity and patients’ dignity, it can be key to medical efficacy. The rate of severe diabetes complications in patients of doctors who rate high on a standard empathy scale, Ofri notes, is a remarkable 40 percent lower than in patients with low-empathy doctors. “This is comparable,” she points out, “to the benefits seen with the most intensive medical therapy for diabetes.”
Compassion is not an option. It is a critical and necessary component of healing. We need to be nurtured in order to heal. I remember my overnight experience in the hospital following the breaking and moving of both my lower and upper jaws very well. (I could write an entire story about the botching of my care, the miscommunication between my surgeon and orthodontist, the being neglected by both of them, the subsequent and continued sinus infection as a result of a mistake during the surgery, along with other complications, the constant fighting with the insurance company…), but what I remember most was the lack of touch I received from the various nurses during my stay. Not ONE of them even placed their hands on my shoulders or body in a gesture of comfort the entire time I was there. My jaw bones had been sawed open, I could not eat and I had trouble breathing. The only thing I wanted was to be gently touched. Touching has been proven to heal people. I had thought (expected, even) that nurses, at least, were compassionate. Instead, they came into my room at all hours of the night, not allowing me to rest for long, always making me swallow more medicine or taking more tests, and then quickly exiting to check on another patient.
The one immediate change that I believe could be made in every medical situation is the component of compassion. Lack of time not be a justification. There is always time to look a person in the eye, place a hand on their shoulder or hand, tell them you are very sorry for their suffering, and tell them that you promise you will do what you can to help them. Compassion is a two-way street. It feels just as good to give as it does to receive. It benefits all participants.
For those who don’t have the time to read the full article, I have posted a few passages below.
A crop of books by disillusioned physicians reveals a corrosive doctor-patient relationship at the heart of our health-care crisis.”
by Meghan O’Rourke
For someone in her 30s, I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices and hospitals, shivering on exam tables in my open-to-the-front gown, recording my medical history on multiple forms, having enough blood drawn in little glass tubes to satisfy a thirsty vampire. In my early 20s, I contracted a disease that doctors were unable to identify for years—in fact, for about a decade they thought nothing was wrong with me—but that nonetheless led to multiple complications, requiring a succession of surgeries, emergency-room visits, and ultimately (when tests finally showed something was wrong) trips to specialists for MRIs and lots more testing. During the time I was ill and undiagnosed, I was also in and out of the hospital with my mother, who was being treated for metastatic cancer and was admitted twice in her final weeks.
As a patient and the daughter of a patient, I was amazed by how precise surgery had become and how fast healing could be. I was struck, too, by how kind many of the nurses were; how smart and involved some of the doctors we met were. But I was also startled by the profound discomfort I always felt in hospitals. Physicians at times were brusque and even hostile to us (or was I imagining it?). The lighting was harsh, the food terrible, the rooms loud. Weren’t people trying to heal? That didn’t matter. What mattered was the whole busy apparatus of care—the beeping monitors and the hourly check-ins and the forced wakings, the elaborate (and frequently futile) interventions painstakingly performed on the terminally ill. In the hospital, I always felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party: I had woken up in a world that seemed utterly logical to its inhabitants, but quite mad to me.
In my own case, it took doctors a long time (roughly 15 years) to recognize exactly what was wrong with me. Along the way, my blood work was at times a little off, or my inflammation markers and white-blood-cell counts were slightly elevated, but nothing seemed definitive, other than some persistent anemia. “Everything’s probably okay,” the doctors would say, or “You have an idiopathic problem,” which is doctor-talk for “We don’t know why you suddenly have hives every day.”
To them, I was a relatively fit, often high-functioning young woman who had a long list of “small” complaints that only occasionally swelled into an acute problem, for which a quick surgical fix was offered (but no reflection on what might be causing it). To me, my life was slowly dissolving into near-constant discomfort and sometimes frightening pain—and terror at losing control. I didn’t know how to speak to the doctors with the words that would get them, as I thought of it, “on my side.” I steeled myself before appointments, vowing not to leave until I had some answers—yet I never managed to ask even half my questions. “You’re fine. We can’t find anything wrong,” more than one doctor said. Or, unforgettably, “You’re probably just tired from having your period.”
In fact, something was very wrong. In the spring of 2012, a sympathetic doctor figured out that I had an autoimmune disease no one had tested me for. And then, one crisp fall afternoon last year, I learned that I had Lyme disease.
But this essay isn’t about how I was right and my doctors were wrong. It’s about why it has become so difficult for so many doctors and patients to communicate with each other. Ours is a technologically proficient but emotionally deficient and inconsistent medical system that is best at treating acute, not chronic, problems: for every instance of expert treatment, skilled surgery, or innovative problem-solving, there are countless cases of substandard care, overlooked diagnoses, bureaucratic bungling, and even outright antagonism between doctor and patient. For a system that invokes “patient-centered care” as a mantra, modern medicine is startlingly inattentive—at times actively indifferent—to patients’ needs.
Without being fully aware of it, what I really wanted all along was a doctor trained in a different system, who understood that a conversation was as important as a prescription; a doctor to whom healing mattered as much as state-of-the-art surgery did.
This is one of the most deeply touching, tenderhearted short films I have seen. It is impossible for me to watch it without getting tears in my eyes. It features Shirley the elephant, who spent 22 years alone in a Louisiana zoo after being attacked and crippled by another elephant in the circus. Her only companion was her sweet caretaker, Solomon James, who said he sometimes stayed with her in the yard for a little bit to give her some company; to make her feel that she’s not alone. “At least I’m here to be with her.” When the zoo could no longer take care of her, she was transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. After bathing her one last time, Solomon emotionally parts with his friend, knowing that she will be better off in a place where she will never be chained again and where she finally has the company of other elephants. “I don’t know who was the first to put a chain on her, but I’m glad I was the last to take it off. She’s free at last.”
The last elephant to return to the barn that night was Jenny. “Trumpets and rumbles echo(ed) into the morning.” After 25 years, the two elephants, who were once together in a circus when Jenny was only an infant, were reunited. During the night, Shirley and Jenny had bent the steel bars between them in an effort to get closer to another. They remembered one another after all the years spent apart. These very affectionate animals caress and hold one another with their trunks, walk side by side, and nuzzle their heads against each other. All living creatures on this earth need love and all need companionship.
“Life is a collaboration and no one should be at it alone.”- Stephanie Snyder
(I actually know someone who has been working at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee for the past several years- a fellow 2009 Appalachian Trail hiker!)