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Learning Peace and Pain

September 15, 2014, 12:00 PM
Learning Peace and Pain
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Having just entered my eighth decade, I reflect on aging through both scientific and personal lenses. My life, I suppose has had neither greater nor fewer tragedies than any other life. But, as Sherwin Nuland, M.D., professor of surgery at Yale University, writes in his book, The Art of Aging, “The wise can learn equally from the good and bad, success and failure; they live through hard times and tragedy, and use them for the lessons such times can teach.”

So I will use a few words here to share some lessons I have learned about mind, body, and soul—mine and others—in my time here on earth.

Lesson #1

Learning from Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother

In distilling a lifetime of memories, some remain as vivid as the day they happened. Almost cliché to my generation, we all have an answer to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” In my case, I was at Parkland Hospital when Kennedy died. As a science reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I heard the announcement on the radio and drove to the hospital. I walked past the blood-stained convertible and was in the hall outside the operating room when the surgeons who had worked so valiantly announced Kennedy’s death. I rode in the hospital elevator with the traumatized Jacqueline Kennedy.

In the weeks that followed, I spent hours interviewing the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. I came away certain that his mother’s own need for her son to be famous had propelled Oswald into the role of assassin. The lesson I learned was that the power behind psychological forces could create enormous tragedies.

I began working on a master’s degree in psychology to try to understand why people do what they do to others—and themselves. It would be a question whose elusive answer would take my curiosity to amazing places.

Lesson #2

Don’t get angry in Antarctica

As the science editor for the Houston Post, I had the splendid good fortune, courtesy of the National Science Foundation, to be assigned to Antarctica in 1960 to explore not the geography of the land but the psyches of the men who volunteered to go there (women weren’t included in scientific expeditions to McMurdo Sound in 1960.) The tenure was at least one year.

Communication was minimal and living conditions, harsh. Forty pounds of clothes were standard issue for new arrivals. If I moved more than six feet from the stove in the middle of the hut, the grease on my typewriter carriage would freeze.

The men at McMurdo often suffered from psychosomatic illnesses as their total reliance on one other and close living conditions made it “unwise” to express negative emotions. They had an additional incentive for keeping their anger in check. On cross-country trips, snow vehicles proved largely ineffective because of deep crevasses hidden by snow. Dog sleds proved safer. If the lead dog dropped out of sight, the other dogs were trained to dig in and hold on until the musher could pull the lead dog up. When the American military decided that electronic crevasse detectors were more effective than the dogs, the dogs were shipped home.

Unfortunately, the new technology failed often enough to be declared unsafe. Until the dogs could be shipped back (sometime the next year) the only solution was for the men to take turns as “lead dog.” Since no man knew when it would be his turn, and each was rather hopeful that the other men behind would dig in should he fall into a crevasse, everyone worked mightily at being pleasant.

There was as much build-up of unexpressed emotion as there was frozen uric acid on the “yellow glacier” outside the huts. What was the bottom line on why these men volunteered for this mentally and physically challenging assignment? It was the last outpost of masculinity.

The seeds of this experience would bear professional fruit almost three decades later when, as a professor of psychology at The University of Texas School of Public Health, I wrote my first book on psychoneuroimmunology, Who Gets Sick: How Thoughts, Moods, and Beliefs Affect Your Health. I understood then, as I watched those men struggle with their emotions, the truth in what Dr. Nuland writes: “We live in the biochemistry of our bodies, and not in years; we live in the interaction between that biochemistry and its greatest product—the human mind—not in a series of decades marked by periodic lurches of changes.”

Lesson #3

Hold hands on mountains, marathons and gurneys

Like anyone who has lived to my age, I have had “periodic lurches of change.” My body has “lurched” through skin cancers, a ruptured colon with reparative surgeries, emergency by-pass surgery, and a stroke during the surgery that wiped out my speech. But along with the lurches, my body has successfully carried me to blissful heights, literally and metaphorically.

My wife, Rita and I finished the New York, Boston, and Houston marathons hand-in-hand. Exactly the same way, we finished an 18-hour climb up Long’s Peak, Colorado, 14,550 ft., a climb that began and ended in the moonlight. Exhausted and exhilarated, Rita described it for both of us: “It was a holy initiation, marking the passage into another realm.” We’ve held hands walking up the 400 steps to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, climbing on the lava shoals past the sleeping sea lions in the Galapagos, and over the ancient stone walls at Machu Picchu. The lessons I’ve learned while lurching and soaring through life were best absorbed while holding hands.

Lesson #4

Memorize ‘Fordyce’s Law’

Finally, the mosaic of my life experiences had confirmed that Fordyce was right. Willard Fordyce of the University of Washington Medical School, a longtime researcher in pain, established what has become known as “Fordyce’s Law,” which says: People suffer less when they find something better to do. My curiosity has always given me “something better to do” than suffer, and, apparently I am in stellar company. Dr. Michael DeBakey, now nearing the elite-but-growing club of centenarians, explains his never-failing passion for life to Dr. Nuland by saying, “It is this aspect of seeking knowledge, and, to use an even more direct word, curiosity. Curiosity and the seeing of knowledge is a transcendent life force—almost, you might say, spiritual. It has a driven character to it. It drives you intellectually and, to an extent, physiologically. The brain influences the body in ways we don’t know about.”

Lesson #5

Make room for pain and peace

Nearly a decade ago in my book A Different Kind of Health: Finding Well-Being Despite Illness, I wrote what I still find to be vitally true of the art of aging. When we have a condition that is not going to be cured or a pain that won’t go away, basing our identity on the nonphysical enlarges our lives so that there is room for both pain and peace. Our illnesses are part of us but only that. The larger parts are the attachments we have to those we love, to service that fulfills us, to the arts that lift us, to nature that stills us, for some, to a God who strengthens us, and to a universe that is a source of ever-lasting wonder.

We adopt a wide-angle lens so we can see there is order and beauty and joy to be experienced, even in the presence of pain. When we see aging, with its inevitable losses, from a different view, it looks much smaller in the total landscape of our life.

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