Have you given a thought to Valentine’s Day yet? I suspect for most people it’s a last minute scramble for dinner reservations or roses. The Valentine cards and candy in stores have been staring us in the face since Christmas Eve. But most of us have had a few other things on our minds, things like floods, flu, holiday bills, and taxes. Hearts and flowers aren’t top priorities for most folks unless they work for Hallmark or Russell Stover.
This year there’s a bit of a twist. February 14th is Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. It’s most unusual. As soon as I noticed this anomaly on the calendar, I realized several things would happen. Some people would turn it into a theological controversy over which observance should take precedence. I’ve always been perplexed by the propensity of some people to promote “either-or” thinking. Sure enough, several prominent clerics have issued stern statements about the obligation of their members to fast and forego any Valentine treats. That’s their call.
Some people will slog through the day unaware of either observance. They don’t worry about philosophical or theological dilemmas, and, for the most part, they’re not terribly romantic or thoughtful to begin with. No big deal.
I have a different take on this. As a 63-year-old woman, I’ve had my share of lovely Valentine surprises and a few bitter disappointments. That’s life. As a geriatrician, I know how many sick, lonely, elderly people are ignored on Valentine’s Day. That’s sad. As a lifelong Catholic, I understand that Ash Wednesday is all about spiritual priorities and discipline. We’re not supposed to be self-indulgent morning, noon, and night. That’s prudent.
Here’s the good part: Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday don’t have to be at odds with each another. There is no need for “either-or” thinking. St. Valentine was a real man, a priest who brought great kindness and love to persecuted people in third century Rome. He was martyred for his devotion in 270 A.D. Ash Wednesday is a major reminder that life is short. The only thing we’ll take with us at the end is the love and compassion we have shown to others.
We all have patients, colleagues, neighbors, and even passing strangers in our lives who will be neglected on February 14th unless we remember them. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Curious. There’s never a need to “fast” from being thoughtful.
Has your home returned to a relative state of post-holiday normality? I’m almost there. The boxes and bags and bows and ribbons have been put away until next year. The “thank you” notes are in the mail. And my kitchen table has been restored to an acceptable state of neatness.
Many people will start to focus on new year’s resolutions now, knowing full well the resolutions are unlikely to last. I have a different tradition at the end of December. It goes back quite a few years. In a reflective state of blissful solitude, I write down my own little “year in review.” It takes some time, thought, and effort, but it’s an exercise that can generate some profound insights.
What were the best or most positive events of 2017 — personally, nationally, and globally?
What were the worst or most tragic events of 2017 — personally, nationally, and globally? How did I cope or respond?
What event or situation made me feel most grateful?
What was the most beautiful, unusual, or remarkable sight I saw in 2017? (Personally, it would be difficult to top the perfect, unobstructed view of the total solar eclipse I had from my own backyard in August 2017.)
What was the biggest mistake I made in 2017? This one can be tough and sobering.
What was the most important lesson I learned in 2017? It’s often related to the biggest mistake I made.
What experience or moment touched me the most deeply?
What was the most noble, courageous, or generous thing I did in the past year? Coming up short on this one is not a good sign.
And finally, what could I do in 2018 to become a better person — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
The little, personal “year in review” may not be as fascinating as a list of the year’s top news stories, viral videos, or celebrities who have passed. It will, however, become profoundly revealing to you 10 or 20 years from now.
Are we there yet? I wonder as I stare at my kitchen table covered with gift bags, wrapping paper, bows, ribbon, tape, and scissors. Every year, I tell myself I’ll cut back a bit next year. It never happens. The pressure starts with Christmas-in-July sales on shopping channels. I confess I find it difficult to resist. I love buying and wrapping presents for people. It truly makes me happy, especially when someone is genuinely surprised and delighted. It’s a constructive way to take the focus off myself.
This year however, something feels different. It’s been a tough year with historic, natural disasters. Devastating hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and blizzards have wreaked havoc on tens of millions of people. Mass shootings, riots, and appalling, vicious acts of violence have left most of us stunned and horrified. My heart breaks for all of those who have lost loved ones and homes. How I wish I could ease their anguish.
I cannot restore lost loved ones, homes, and treasured possessions for people in California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. I can write a few checks and say a few prayers. Those are good things to do, but they never seem to be enough.
Then it dawned on me. There are lots of people suffering all around us every day. They just don’t appear on the evening news. Here, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, there are nearly 2,500 homeless teenagers. That seems ironic in a town that’s largely focused on tourism and fun. I decided to give some money to my almost-adult niece and nephew. I gave them instructions to go buy clothes for homeless teenagers. I have no clue what teenagers would want or need, but my niece and nephew do, and they did well. Unloading their bags full of jackets, hoodies, sweaters, socks, underwear, scarves, and hats, they announced they “had a blast” doing it. Surprise! Thinking of other people can be fun.
My kitchen table is still a mess. But this year, I realize how blessed I am to have a kitchen, messy table and all.
Did you survive Thanksgiving without major family stress or tension? If the answer is “no,” you’re not alone. Holiday gatherings don’t always bring out the best in everyone. Some folks are already frazzled by travel nightmares. Those hosting the feast are tense and worn down by days of planning, preparation, and cooking. No one ever has quite enough room in her kitchen for all the food, much less the guests who congregate in the middle of the mess. There’s nearly always one culinary mishap and someone is sure to announce she has a life-threatening allergy to gravy.
But wait! We haven’t even begun to address deeply ingrained differences in political perspectives, religious beliefs, and good, old-fashioned feuds and grudges. Was all of this supposed to be fun? Fortunately or not, many of us will have another crack at family festivity soon as we try to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. I have a few time-tested thoughts that might help—at least a bit.
Psychologists tell us that it takes 21 days to replace a bad habit with a good one. That means we have just enough time to make a difference. Starting now, try not to criticize, condemn, or complain. It’s not easy, especially in this culture. However, it will make the next family gathering much easier to endure, if not actually enjoy.
Remember some basic neurophysiology. The human brain cannot hold onto diametrically opposed emotions simultaneously. We can’t feel love and hatred at the same time. We can’t feel empathy and anger in the same moment. And we can’t experience gratitude and resentment all at once. It may sound simplistic, but gratitude is often the best remedy for resentment, anger, anxiety, and sadness. Those of us who have food, water, shelter, clothes, electricity, a little money, and a few loved ones have more than hundreds of millions of people around the world. Smile and say “thank you” — a lot.
Forgive yourself and everyone else. I’ve watched relatives feud for decades. They make themselves and everyone else miserable. None of us is perfect. We’ve all said and done things that were misguided or thoughtless. However, refusing to forgive is like drinking poison. It makes no sense. Forgiveness represents the ultimate act of overcoming ego. Let it go. LET IT GO!
Please don’t make me sing that song from “Frozen.” I have relatives who would never forgive me.
“Anyone who believes in God is stupid.” This statement was among many posted by the monster who murdered 26 innocent people in November 2017 in a Texas church. The victims ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. Eight members of one family were killed, 20 people were wounded. No one had a chance to hide or escape.
The man who committed this atrocity had been seething with anger and brutality for years. There were many red flags. He had received a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force and served time for assaulting his wife and child. His attack was so brutal, the baby suffered a skull fracture. He was known to have beaten and starved his dog. Any man capable of beating a woman, a baby, and a dog does not turn into a decent human being after 12 months in prison. The many pieces of this puzzle are already coming together.
In the realm of religious thought and theology, anger is considered one of the seven deadly sins. Unjust anger, if allowed to smolder, can lead anyone down a vicious path of destruction.
In the realm of clinical medicine, anger and hostility are considered the two most deadly and dangerous emotions. Those of us in health care encounter angry, hostile people almost every day. In fact, all of us encounter angry, hostile people with increasing frequency. Anger triggers a flood of potent hormones and neurotransmitters that can literally change brain function and even brain structure if the process lasts long enough.
However, pathologic anger, violence, and evil do not exist in a vacuum. There are always warning signs. All too often they go unnoticed or unreported. Most of us have been well-schooled to “mind our own business.” After all, we don’t want to be called judgmental, and we certainly don’t want to be sued. But considering the horrific happenings in Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, and New York, it’s time to rethink a few things.
Folks in law enforcement have been begging us for years: “If you see something, say something.” That advice sounds painfully simple, but simple things often save lives. Most of us know when something’s not right. We need to trust our instincts.
The good people of Sutherland, Texas, trusted their instincts hours after the massacre. In response to unfathomable evil and anger, they held a candlelight prayer vigil. That doesn’t sound “stupid” to me.
Gary Michael Rose is a devoted 69-year-old husband, father, and grandfather. Many people in Huntsville, Alabama, know him from his commitment to multiple volunteer projects. For decades he has served as a Knight of Columbus, helped at a soup kitchen, and repaired broken appliances for the sick and elderly. That’s only a partial list.
Only a handful of people knew that Gary Michael Rose was a war hero of the highest caliber because for 40 years he never said one word about it. Not one word. On October 23, 2017, Captain Rose received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Now the whole world has a real hero to emulate and honor.
“Mike,” as people call him, trained as a Special Forces medic during the Vietnam War. His second assignment involved a top secret mission into Laos to stem the flow of weapons to enemy fighters. It wasn’t long before all hell broke loose.
The men in Mike’s unit sustained heavy casualties. Desperate to save them, Mike raced into small-weapons and machine-gun fire, tending to the wounded as he shielded them with his own body. One by one, Mike used one hand to hoist a wounded soldier over his back and held a gun in his other hand to return enemy fire.
Eventually, Mike sustained multiple wounds himself, but that didn’t deter him. When a chopper finally arrived to evacuate the wounded, it was unable to land and was forced to hover above the ground. Mike lifted and pushed his wounded buddies into the helicopter in the midst of gunfire. As the chopper began to lift up, the gunner was struck in the neck by a bullet. Mike fashioned a pressure dressing with several bandanas to contain the bleeding. But the helicopter was badly damaged and crash- landed. In an unbelievable display of courage and fortitude, Mike raced in and out of the smoldering chopper to save the wounded before everything exploded.
After four days and nights of constant combat, no food or sleep, and nonstop efforts to save others despite his own injuries, Mike and his men were evacuated. The Army believed that Captain Gary Michael Rose saved between 60 to 70 men, including the man who was shot in the neck.
All of this happened in 1970. Mike never discussed it with anyone because the mission was classified. His men talked about it though — through channels at the Pentagon. For 47 years his men campaigned to get Mike the medal he deserved. Mike finally received his medal, and many of men witnessed the ceremony at the White House.
If someone had written a screenplay detailing the heroism of Gary Michael Rose in combat, it would have been rejected as “unrealistic.” Fortunately for the world, Captain Rose is very realistic. After a ceremony at the Pentagon, he’s going home to Alabama with his family. He still has people to help.
Making that assumption is human nature. Tragically, as people in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Berlin have witnessed, ordinary assumptions can be deadly.
Survival requires alertness. It always has. It always will. There has never been a shortage of danger in the world. The nature and complexity of threats have evolved over the millennia, but certain principles of survival endure. Being mindful of your surroundings is one important principle.
Mindfulness is not new. Nor is it merely a pleasant pastime. “Being in the moment” is a good way to slow down, enjoy a meal, or notice a full moon. It may, with practice, help reduce blood pressure and stress. That’s nice. However, in an age when deranged fanatics and terrorists can wreak massive devastation in minutes, mindfulness can save lives.
An off-duty police officer is still a police officer. The same is true for health-care professionals. The next time you’re out in public, be it in a classroom, a café, or a concert hall, practice some mindfulness that really matters:
Be alert, be vigilant — pay attention to people and things around you — not your devices. Do not “zone out.”
Scan the area for possible exits. It is human nature to leave a place the same way you entered. This can be a fatal mistake in a fire, a terrorist attack, or any catastrophe.
Resist the temptation to follow the crowd. Panic-stricken people can be exceedingly dangerous. Be mindful of alternate options for escape. Being trampled to death is not a good option.
Cultivate enough silence in your daily life to foster good instincts and intuition. When seconds matter, this can save lives.
The principles of mindfulness have been practiced and promoted by some very wise people over the centuries. It is curious that a step on the path to enlightenment may be the most crucial survival skill of all.
Millions of people around the world were stunned by the horror of the Las Vegas massacre. The magnitude of the attack was staggering. However, it was the cold, cruel, calculating mindset of the shooter that left us speechless. Normal, decent human beings are not capable of grasping that degree of unmitigated evil. And yet, as the days passed, stories of stunning courage, heroism, and compassion emerged.
Police officers stood up amidst crouching civilians trying to discern the shooter’s location, making themselves targets. At least two men were shot while performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Scores of people used their own bodies as shields to protect loved ones and even strangers. And quick-thinking, brave people fashioned splits, tourniquets, and stretchers from anything these people could find.
Several victims survived, in part, because combat veterans inserted their fingers into bullet wounds to slow blood loss.
Many individuals demonstrated compassion, courage, and creative thinking, transporting victims to hospitals. An Iraq war veteran “borrowed” a truck with the key in the ignition and shuttled 30 people to the emergency room (ER). A cab driver passing by scooped up a young woman with severe wounds. In the back seat, his passengers cradled her as they raced to the nearest hospital. In a moving demonstration of selflessness, many of those injured or wounded declined ambulance transport or emergency care in deference to those in even more serious condition. As one of the ER triage physicians said, “I’ve never had such wonderful patients!”
All of these stories are remarkably reminiscent of the kindness and heroism displayed by people in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Countless people donated blood, water, food, accommodations, time, and money to assist victims, family members, first responders, and medical personnel.
Truly evil people always want to aggrandize themselves, often through unspeakable violence. But violence has always been the last refuge of the coward. And, as we’ve witnessed in Las Vegas, one cowardly act by a monster inspired a thousand acts of compassion and courage. May God heal and protect all the good people who endured so much and helped so many.
Have you reached the point where you’re afraid to watch the news? I have. The sight of one human being kicking another sickens me and every other sane person. However, anger, hatred, and violence are not new. They are as old as mankind because they stem from primitive, tribal, and “us versus them” thinking. And lest we think we’re above it all, primitive, tribal thinking occurs daily in neighborhoods, businesses, offices, universities, and political and religious entities around the globe. No one starts out that way. As a poignant lyric from the World War II musical “South Pacific” reminds us, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Perhaps more people in the under-50 crowd can relate to a line spoken by Yoda in the “Star Wars” saga. Cautioning Luke Skywalker about the true enemy, Yoda warns against fear: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to the dark side.”
That’s not merely a memorable line from a movie. That is profound. Wherever we see evil, darkness, or violence, there is almost always some measure of fear. People fear the loss of their money, their power, their identities, their rights, their beliefs, and their version of “truth.” All of this sounds like a philosophical discussion until we consider the underlying physiology.
Appropriate fear, as part of the fight-or-flight response, is a survival mechanism. It has helped humans and other species to endure for many millennia. Learned fear originates in the amygdala. Repeated, fearful stimuli, if unchecked by higher centers in the frontal and pre-frontal cortices, can rapidly lead to anger and aggression. Simply put, a person can literally develop an angry brain.* The result is an individual who becomes angry too easily and too often. These people overreact to angry feelings, become aggressive whenever upset, and have great difficulty calming down. Allowing oneself to simmer in a sea of angry thoughts, feelings, hormones, and neurotransmitters can rapidly lead to some horrible behavior. We see it every night on the news.
Human physiology is such that anger and empathy are mutually exclusive. Empathy, being a far more highly-evolved emotion, tends to inhibit anger and aggression. And calmness is a pre-requisite for empathy. Long, long ago, in our very own galaxy, someone even wiser than Yoda said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Perhaps someday the human race will catch on. Until then, don’t go overboard watching the news.
A week of frightening forecasts. Days of hectic, worried preparations. Hours of terrifying wind and torrential rain. Now nearly seven million Floridians are without power. They, along with millions of other people, will begin the long process of recovery. Despite their exhaustion and stress, they will follow in the footsteps of so many Texans and help one another. People in Florida are not strangers to disasters. They know how to re-build.
And who, among the rest of us, does not know someone in Texas or Florida? Nearly every individual I know has family members, friends, colleagues, or acquaintances in one of these disaster-ravaged areas. We are all interconnected whether we realize it or not. Those of us in health care who are well-acquainted with suffering have an opportunity to set a good example for others. Whatever each of us can do to help, now would be a good time.