Not A Bad Idea

Posted Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

It starts early.  It starts much too early. “Christmas in July” sales morph into “Black Friday Before Black Friday” sales.  Christmas decorations, promotions, and music assault us even before the Halloween candy appears.  What happened to all that preaching about mindfulness and living in the moment?  Ah, anything for a buck!

Some of us are old enough to remember Advent.  The centuries-old tradition of prayerful discipline during the four weeks leading up to Christmas has all but disappeared.  Advent calendars now are little more than an excuse to indulge in fancy chocolates or even beauty products for each day in December.  What stupendous marketing! We’ve learned how to turn self-indulgence into virtue.

The word “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus,” or arrival.  It signifies the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.  The original Advent calendars involved a simple numbered flap which opened to reveal a religious image related to the Christmas story.  But we live in a consumer-driven society.  The Advent practice only goes so far.  Why look at a religious image when you can stuff yourself with candy or try a new beauty product day by day?

Chocolates and beauty products are great, but they are not the reason for Advent or Christmas.  The more important something is, the more preparation and anticipation it deserves.  Spiritual events require spiritual preparation.  And since human beings are not mere blobs of protoplasm, we need to balance body, mind, and spirit.

Every sincere religion in the world promotes some form of physical discipline as a path to spiritual growth.  Periodic fasting can be beneficial for overall health (in medically stable people). There’s even evidence that refraining from eating between dinner and “breakfast” stimulates growth hormone levels and facilitates weight loss.

Fasting or abstaining as a spiritual discipline need not be limited to food. Consider how you feel (or behave) when deprived of your devices, TV, or electricity for an hour.  Advent disciplines can involve “giving up” anything from eating out, to sugar, to alcohol, to shopping.  In years gone by, people would save the money they didn’t spend on personal indulgences and give it to the needy.  Even in a strong economy there are plenty of people in need.

This year, Hanukkah and Christmas occur in the same week.  Family celebrations, festivities, and fun await millions.  Regardless of theology, several weeks of thoughtful spiritual and physical discipline beforehand will make the main event that much more marvelous.  Besides, there are only so many practices that can help you lose weight and save money at the same time.  Advent: It’s not a bad idea.

How To Get Back To Civility

Posted Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

We all have blind spots about ourselves, but sometimes our self-image can border on delusional.  Seventy-eight percent of people polled believe that there has been a decline in civility during the past decade.  The other 22% were probably in a medically-induced coma.

The real shocker comes next.  Ninety-nine percent of people believe their own level of civility has remained constant.  So who are all those rude people out there?  Perhaps a brief self-assessment is in order.

Do you remember the last time you:

  • Sent a thank-you note (a real handwritten one)?
  • Let someone go ahead of you in a checkout line?
  • Waived another driver ahead of you in busy traffic?
  • Held a door open for someone else? (That’s called manners, not chauvinism.)
  • Offered to help someone struggling with boxes, bags, or packages?
  • Helped someone get his or her luggage in the overhead compartment of an airplane?
  • Helped an older patient in and out of a chair (as opposed to merely standing there and watching him or her struggle)?

There are countless other examples, especially in this age of narcissism.  Self-absorption is Cause No. 1 of the four major causes of rudeness.  This time of year, people talk about flu epidemics.  But “me, myself, and I syndrome” is a year-round epidemic.  Simply being unaware of other people or their needs is ubiquitous behavior these days.  It speaks to a failure of parenting and education.

That leads to Cause No. 2 of rudeness:  ignorance.  Manners and civility need to be taught, and no participation trophies are not awarded.  Civility is its own reward.

Cause No. 3 of rudeness is lack of character.  We don’t speak much about someone’s character these days.  It’s a serious flaw in our culture.  Character determines how any one of us behaves when no one is watching.  It’s our default mode of behavior.  Eric Hoffer said, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  It takes a strong person to be kind, gentle, patient, or polite.

Cause No. 4 of rudeness is simply being in a hurry.  It’s curious, but can you even imagine the spiritual giants of the ages being in a rush?  Granted, people like Moses, Jesus, and Buddha lived a long time ago, but no one could possibly picture their being frantic and frenetic.  As Emerson wrote, “Manners require time, as nothing is more vulgar than haste.”

Self-absorption, ignorance, lack of character, and haste.  These are the major causes of rudeness.  Maybe we could start to “reverse engineer” our way back to civility.  It would surely be worth the effort.

All the Little Warning Signs

Posted Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

A friend of mine died last week from cancer. She was 52 years old.  Few people knew how seriously ill she was.  She didn’t want pity.  She didn’t even want sympathy.  The only thing she wanted was exuberance in life and dignity in death.  She successfully achieved both.

Sitting in the back of the church and listening to her eulogy, I wondered how many people struggle silently with serious illness and stress.  I suspect every one of us knows people who, despite their poise and polish, suffer tremendous personal anguish that remains hidden from the world.  They function day to day scarcely skipping a beat.  They’re the first ones to lend a hand when someone else is in a jam and they hardly ever grumble or gripe.  Other folks tend to dump extra work in their laps because they’re so good-natured and conscientious.

Then one day, overwhelmed by stress, illness, depression, or exhaustion, these selfless stoics collapse.  Nearly everyone in their sphere of influence is shocked because they failed to notice all the little warning signs.  Somehow it was so easy to overlook the growing fatigue, the waning enthusiasm, or the uncharacteristic irritability.  I’d like to say that doctors are usually expert at recognizing the subtle signs of serious illness and stress.  But the truth is, most of us are not.  Doctors, by and large, are so accustomed to chronic exhaustion in their own lives, they often overlook it completely in others.  There is no laboratory test for stress and no scan will screen for exhaustion.  It takes time and concern and insight to detect the subtle signs of serious stress.  And while many of us may be interested in the well-being of others, few of us take the time to develop true insight into other people’s problems.

Maybe if we all slowed down long enough to notice a friend’s fatigue or a colleague’s quiet mood, we could do something helpful before it is too late.  Maybe if we stopped placing so many unreasonable demands on one another, we wouldn’t be plagued by chronic fatigue and burnout.  Maybe if we made an effort to be more friendly and flexible in our daily encounters, folks would feel free to ask for help when they need it.

It would be wonderful if teachers and preachers and bosses and bureaucrats would promote empathy and compassion as much as they promote rules and regulations.  But until patience and kindness work their way into the culture’s curricula, we’ll have to rely on the insight of individuals.

Do you know someone who’s overwhelmed, worn out, dejected, or depressed?  Be gentle with him or her.  Cut such people some slack.  They may be up against serious stress or illness.  Be kind to them and to everyone you encounter today.  You may not have the chance to be kind to them tomorrow.